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Senate Republicans lukewarm on House’s ag labor bill

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung Farmworker bumper sticker USDA.jpg
Fears of repeating the mass exodus out of ag labor discussed during Senate Judiciary hearing.

A bipartisan group of House members advanced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 out of the U.S. House of Representatives on March 18, 2021, with a vote of 247-174. As it awaits action in the Senate, Republicans in the Senate fear it would provide amnesty and not actually solve the labor shortages facing the ag sector.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified July 21 during the “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America” Judiciary Committee hearing and shared the full economic contribution of the food and agriculture industries is estimated to be nearly $7 trillion and supporting more than 40 million jobs – nearly 20 million directly and more than 20 million in supplier industries.

Says Vilsack: “The success of these industries are millions of farmworkers – an estimated 2.5 million, half of whom are estimated to be undocumented – and our immigration system does not work for them and, thus, does not work for our farmers. As secretary of agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers across the country who worry that our immigration system is broken and continually feel the consequences.”

Related: House sends ag labor bill to Senate

Vilsack’s appearance is the first-ever by an agriculture secretary before the full Senate Judiciary Committee. He voiced support for passage of the bipartisan, House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers – many of whom have lived in America for years – an opportunity to earn citizenship.

“I urge my Congressional colleagues here today to meet this moment of bipartisanship efforts and move legislation forward this year that provides legal status and a path to citizenship for farmworkers – securing a reliable workforce for our agriculture industry – as well as legislation that provides a living wage for these essential workers along with strong labor protections,” Vilsack says.

Worry over amnesty

But Senate Republicans members remain cautious in looking back at previous immigration reforms and how the latest proposal may fall short in addressing the needs of today.

In an opening statement from Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, he says it’s an unfortunate reality that a significant portion of the agricultural workforce is made up of illegal immigrants. As Congress considers agricultural labor reform proposals, he points out that the primary focus should be reforming the H-2A program to ensure that farmers and agricultural employers have access to a stable and legal workforce.

Related: Year-round ag labor fix included in appropriations bill

“This will involve expanding the program to cover year-round agricultural industries such as pork, dairy and agricultural processing. It should also involve streamlining the program, reducing red tape and addressing the high cost of using the program,” Grassley says. Representatives from both the dairy and pork industry testified on the importance of offering year-round labor in whatever bill advances.

Grassley says the House’s Farm Workforce Modernization Act falls short in addressing a number of these issues.

He also warns agricultural labor reform should not include a mass amnesty of current illegal immigrant farm workers. In 1986, Grassley says he voted for a bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that provided an amnesty to more than 1 million farm workers under what was called the Special Agricultural Workers program. At the time, the American people were told that the 1986 amnesty bill would be a one-time fix.

Title I of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act creates a program called Certified Agricultural Worker status that is, in many respects, almost identical to the SAW program Congress created in 1986, explains Grassley. In a July 2000 report, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice noted that, in 1995, management at the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that 70% of SAW applications were fraudulent.

“On top of being bad policy, a mass amnesty of current farm workers also does absolutely nothing to address agricultural labor shortages and workforce issues,” Grassley says. “As we saw in the aftermath of the 1986 amnesty bill, the vast majority of agricultural workers who received legal status ultimately left the agricultural sector.”

He explains employers then turned to a new pool of illegal immigrant workers to replace all of the ones who had left. “And, thus, the cycle simply began once again,” Grassley says.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also detailed the SAW shortfalls and submitted a letter from the American Farm Bureau Federation expressing concerns and seeking changes to the House proposal.

“In its current state, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is not ripe for legislative action and more work needs to be done to build a consensus. And I’m happy to be a part of that effort,” Cornyn says.

He cited that the Congressional Research Service identified the mass exodus of immigrants from ag labor to non-farm jobs after the last major immigration reform makes sense if people are here legally and not required to work in ag jobs as they had an option to work in less challenging positions.

Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers union and long-time advocate for a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, says the reality is that UFW has have worked very hard with the ag industry and Republicans in the House legislation to “ensure that in fact those workers who are working here today in agriculture will continue working here in agriculture for years to come,” he says.

As a result, the House bill required in order to be considered for the pathway to citizenship, workers had to previously worked for two years in agriculture just to get the certified agriculture workforce status, and also promise to work minimally another four years in agriculture.

“If Congress is merely delegalizing undocumented immigrant farmworkers without addressing underlying reasons why they’re unlawfully present in the country in the first place and without making the necessary changes in the guestworker program, I fear we would repeat the mistakes of the past and create even more problems for ag producers and food supply,” Cornyn warns.

Whatever Congress adopts, Cornyn says any legalization for farmworkers must be coupled with a plan to replace those who leave the ag workforce. “We should not move only the legalization element of the proposal independent of the guestworker provisions, and we still need to make changes in the guestworker provisions.”

As bipartisan immigration talks continue in the Senate, Cornyn also warned against the Democrat Party’s attempt to include a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers and others in the budget reconciliation package. Although he says inclusion likely will not qualify for inclusion in a reconciliation per rules of the Senate, he states immigration law is not written through budget procedures and called on those in the Democrat Party to commit to moving any immigration reforms through the normal bipartisan process.

“As part of bipartisan immigration talks, we should continue our work to make changes to build the necessary consensus,” Cornyn says.

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