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‘We need action’ by Senate on farm labor reform, say advocates

With congressional adjournment on the horizon, a parade of farmers, food processors, and lawmakers called on the Senate on Wednesday to get to work on legislation to give legal status to undocumented farmworkers and streamline the H-2A guestworker program. The House passed an ag labor bill 19 months ago, but nothing has emerged from behind-the-scenes negotiations in the Senate on the issue.

“Sen. Crapo, Sen. Bennet, the time is now. File the damn bill,” said Steve Obert, executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers and one of a dozen speakers at a news conference on the U.S. Capitol lawn. All called for timely passage of immigration reform for agriculture.

Colorado Sen. Mike Bennet, a Democrat, and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican, were the leaders in Senate negotiations on ag labor. Senate Republicans, who have spoken against “amnesty” for undocumented farmworkers or have prioritized border security over ag labor, are regarded as the main barrier to action. A Bennet spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Senate Democratic leaders want bipartisan support for an ag labor bill before taking it to the floor for a vote. For Republican senators, despite the adage that every state is a farm state, a vote on immigration could create controversy at home.

“We need action,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and cosponsor of ag labor bills that have passed the House twice since 2019. Republican cosponsor Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington State said the agricultural sector needed a reliable and legal workforce; half of farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. “It is so difficult to get employees to do the hard work necessary to feed this country,” he said. “It adds costs to the American consumer” if crops cannot be harvested due to worker shortages.

Chuck Conner, chief executive of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said proponents were willing to discuss refinements to the House bill and were flexible about the approach to take, including making it a stand-alone bill or wrapping ag labor into an omnibus bill. “We’ll take any process at this point.”

The House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, HR 1603, on a bipartisan roll call, 247-174, in March 2021. Under the terms of the bill, farmworkers and their families could earn legal status as certified farmworkers if they pass background checks and continue to work in agriculture. A nine-year path to citizenship would be available to people who work at least 14 years on the farm.

The bill also would streamline the H-2A visa process by granting foreign workers visas that are good for three years and by creating up to 60,000 H-2A visas for work at dairy farms and other year-round employers. At present, H-2A visas are for seasonal workers. Dairy groups back the ag labor bill as a way to find workers. “We do not qualify for any [guestworker] visa program,” said Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.

After the legalization and H-2A reforms have been implemented, agricultural employers would be required to use an electronic database to verify that a job applicant can work legally in the United States.

Critics say that the standard for retaining status as a certified agricultural worker — 100 days of farm labor a year — is minimal and that family members would face no such obligation. In the House, some Republicans wanted to allow more year-round work under the H-2A program.

The largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, opposed the House bill, though one of its members, the California Farm Bureau, backs agricultural immigration reform. “We have spent decades on an issue that needs to be resolved now,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, at the Capitol Hill news conference.

A two-page summary of the ag labor bill is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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