Agricultural immigration reform shouldn’t include amnesty. This should be a given.

Unfortunately, some legislators seem to disagree, as evidenced by the agricultural immigration legislation the House passed last year and legislation recently introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.

It’s not always easy to define amnesty, but this much is clear: Allowing illegal agricultural workers to remain in the United States as they secure legal status is amnesty.

Yet this is what both of these agricultural immigration bills would do. Illegal agricultural workers wouldn’t even be required to leave the country temporarily as they secure legal status.

Legal agricultural workers under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program are required to leave the country for an uninterrupted period of three months before seeking readmission, once they have been in the U.S. for three years. Yet, under these bills, leaving temporarily is too much to ask of illegal agricultural workers.

Bill proponents likely would point to the fines in the legislation as a way to offset allowing illegal agricultural workers to remain in the U.S.

The House-passed bill (Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 5038) imposes a $1,000 fine only if illegal agricultural workers decide to apply in the future for lawful permanent residence (i.e. get their green card). They wouldn’t have to pay a fine to secure the new certified agricultural worker legal status created by the bill.

Yoho’s bill, the Labor Certainty for Food Security Act, H.R. 6083, would impose a $2,500 fine on illegal agricultural workers seeking to secure legal status.

These fines, though, still can’t offset the amnesty that is being provided to the illegal agricultural workers who are allowed to stay in the United States. 

That’s because by being allowed to stay in the country as they move to legal status, illegal agricultural workers are being rewarded with what matters most and was the reason for their illegal actions: being able to live and work in the United States without having to leave.

Further, while these illegal agricultural workers are able to get the benefit of remaining in the U.S. as they secure legal status, foreign workers who are doing everything right must stay outside the country before getting legal status and existing legal agricultural workers have to leave for a brief period of time.

Illegal agricultural workers shouldn’t be treated more favorably than these other workers, but that’s exactly what would happen under these bills.

The legal immigration system and rule of law shouldn’t be undermined by rewarding illegal actions, including by conveying a message that agricultural workers and employers don’t have to follow U.S. immigration law.

As explained, defining amnesty isn’t simple. But sometimes it is easy to spot. If illegal agricultural workers are not required to leave and remain outside the U.S. while securing legal status, this would be amnesty. This also means sham requirements such as requiring an illegal agricultural worker to merely touch the ground of a foreign country for a day before coming back to the U.S. are also amnesty.

The Heritage Foundation’s “An Agenda for Immigration Reform,” published last year, argued that “the government should pursue a measured set of approaches to a wide variety of immigration issues, but in all events, it should exclude amnesty for aliens unlawfully in the United States.”

Congress should follow this important advice.