U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson on Friday told a Johnstown crowd that he hopes to see a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in September that would create a new visa system designed to boost the number of workers in the United States’ agriculture industry.
The Republican congressman from Centre County discussed his thoughts on what he described as a “food security workforce bill” at a “Connect with Congress” breakfast event hosted by the Cambria Regional Chamber’s Governmental Action Committee at the Holiday Inn in downtown Johnstown.
Thompson said the bill, which he plans to co-sponsor, would “create a visa system so that you have a reliable workforce” in the agriculture industry. Among those who would be eligible to apply for the visas are immigrants who are currently in the country without documentation, he added. The visas would be valid for five-year periods, with the possibility of renewal for another five years.
Among the jobs he envisioned visa recipients filling, he said, are positions as farmhands, herdsmen or workers in plants that process dairy or meat. A shortage of workers to do these jobs is hurting American farmers’ fortunes, he added, and establishing a visa program in order to fill the positions is meant as a way to “provide some reliability and certainty for our agricultural workforce.”
“Today,” he said, “we have dairy farms that have been sold, not because of other issues, but because they can’t find the workforce. We have crop-growers who just let their crops rot in the field when there are hungry people out there because they can’t find the people to pick those crops.”
The sixth-term congressman also framed the shortage of agriculture workers as a matter of national security: “It’s about food security. Without food security, you don’t have national security. You’re absolutely vulnerable to those you’re buying your food from.”
Thompson specified that the new system would not include a new pathway to citizenship for visa recipients.
“We already have defined pathways to citizenship,” he said. “If somebody’s interested in that, it’s clearly defined what you do to pursue citizenship.”
Also, workers who receive the visas would have to remain employed in the agricultural sector in order to keep their visas, he said.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “you’d have to stay within the agriculture segment. There’s some work being done to develop … a similar track that would be used for the trades and also for hospitality services. Those are three areas that are heavily dependent and short on qualified and trained workers. You couldn’t cross over – if you’re here on an agriculture visa and you want to do something else, you’re going to have to check back in and go back to your home country.”
While legislators are “just currently working on the legislative language,” the lead author of the bill will be U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, Thompson said. The bipartisan bill also has the support of “a very senior member of the Democratic Party from California who’s involved with it,” he added without naming that Democrat.
Thompson expressed hope that the bill will “break the gridlock” that he said is preventing the passage of immigration-related legislation in Congress.
“If we can get a win on this – a bipartisan, consensus win – then we can do the rest of that,” he said. “We can prove that we can actually tackle a pretty thorny issue.”
Turning to the subject of trade, Thompson told the audience that “the most important thing (Congress) can do on trade today” is vote to approve the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Other “exciting things happening” in the trade sphere, he added, include a deal announced by President Donald Trump earlier in August under which the U.S. will sell more beef to the European Union and the recent success of negotiations that will quadruple exports of U.S. dairy components such as whey and lactose to Japan.