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Ag immigration reform on horizon

Rudy Sulgan/Getty Images U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
IMMIGRATION REFORM: President Joe Biden’s comprehensive immigration reform bill — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 — may not have enough votes to pass Congress.
A Washington, D.C., insider talks about climate legislation, trade and the next farm bill.

While comprehensive immigration reform will be difficult to pass, ag-focused immigration reform might have a better shot, according to a Washington, D.C., agricultural insider.

Charlie Garrison, president of The Garrison Group LLC in Washington, D.C., an ag-focused lobbying firm, said Tuesday that he doesn’t think President Joe Biden’s comprehensive immigration reform bill — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 — will have enough votes to pass Congress.

He told listeners at the 2021 Food & Ag Summit, put on by Pennsylvania-based Barley Snyder and Herbein + Co Inc., that agricultural overtime provisions in the bill — requiring overtime pay at 50 hours the first year, 45 hours the second year and 40 hours thereafter — will make it hard for many lawmakers to accept.   

"It's creating a hiccup for us, frankly," Garrison said. “The plan will struggle to get 218 votes in the House. There just isn't enough support for this bill in the House. So, it's time to look at an incremental approach.”

That might include revisiting the 2019 Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which expanded the H-2A visa program for year-round work; established a program for agricultural workers, as well as their spouses and minor children, to earn legal status through continued ag employment; provided an additional 40,000 green cards per year for ag workers; and established a new, mandatory e-verify system.

New rules passed by the House in January make it possible for the bill to be reintroduced for another vote without committee hearings or markups, so long as it’s done before April 1.

Garrison expects the bill to be reintroduced in the House by the end of this week.

Climate change

Last year’s Growing Climate Solutions Act, which was introduced in the House and Senate but didn’t get a vote, might see the light of day again, Garrison said, because of its bipartisan support and the fact that climate change legislation is a top priority for the Biden administration.

The bill would’ve created a new voluntary carbon market system for agriculture, including incentives for emissions reductions and carbon sequestration on farms. It’s supported by American Farm Bureau Federation and other ag groups.

But the most important aspect of the bill, Garrison said, is that a new carbon bank would reside within the Department of Agriculture, not the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Most of us agree that’s where we want this,” he said.

Trade, nutrition and the farm bill

When it comes to trade, China, as always, is at the top of the list for agriculture.

The U.S.-China Phase 1 trade deal, which is now in its second and final year, included commitments by China to increase its purchases of U.S. ag exports by $12.5 billion over 2017 levels, or $33.4 billion total.

China purchased a little over $27 billion in U.S. ag exports in 2020, according to an analysis by American Farm Bureau Federation, short of the initial goal.

Garrison predicts that trade relations with China will continue to be rocky, and that the hopes for a Phase 2 deal will depend on addressing two issues: intellectual property rights and China’s treatment of ethnic groups.

Increasing trade with Japan also is something to keep an eye on, Garrison said, as the Biden administration considers reentering the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership), which former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of early in his administration.

New trade deals with the European Union and United Kingdom, Garrison said, are in doubt, largely because both blocks want agriculture excluded from any post-Brexit deal.

On the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, “It’s all about enforcement,” Garrison said. Will Canada buy the dairy and egg products it agreed to in the deal? Will Mexico pay its workers more as it agreed to in the deal? Those are the factors to look for to see if the deal is working, he said.

When it comes to nutrition, Garrison said Democrats in Congress want to shift away from the Farmers to Food Box Program and put more money — 15% more — into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The challenge for agriculture, he said, is making sure people have easy access to dairy, produce and other products that the food box program enabled.

On the farm bill, Garrison doesn’t see a final package being completed and signed into law until at least 2023 when the current farm bill expires, although he believes that discussion on the new bill will ramp up by the end of this year.

A new climate title is expected to be included in the new farm bill, although this will take time for details to be hashed out, he said.

The big question this time around is money. About $75 billion is directed to farm bill programs each year with two-thirds of that money going to nutrition. With a new climate title and no new funding expected, Garrison said the next farm bill might be a tough one for agriculture.

“I think that's going to be challenging and expensive, and I don't know where the money is going to come from," he said.

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