Sense. Michael Bennett (D-Colo) and Mike Krabow (GOP-Idaho) was toiling behind closed doors in an attendant package that could attract enough votes to break the Senate’s sixtieth stall. If they don’t start moving the bill before the August recess, time may run out this fall, as lawmakers turn their attention to midterm campaigns and other legislative priorities, such as government funding. Once the year is over, lawmakers will have to start over from scratch in the new Congress.
“There isn’t much time left,” the senator said. John Bozeman (R-Ark.), distinguished member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, for POLITICO.
Without action, Congress may miss an opportunity to try to rein in food inflation, as prices are driven in part by a shortage of farm labor. The struggle to find farm workers has only intensified in recent years, thanks to tighter immigration restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic and a highly competitive job market. Increasingly, the agricultural economy depends on foreign-born workers, including immigrants brought in via the H-2A guest worker program.
But even Krabow was not optimistic about the prospects for any immediate moves on the law. When asked if action would be taken before then, he said: “I don’t expect that to happen before the August holiday.”
There are still many provisions passed by the House of Representatives, including pay policy, Maximum number of extended visas for farm workers and Extension of some legal rights to these workers.
According to a source familiar with the negotiations, an agreement on wages has been reached and the senators are close to agreeing on the issue of the cap. But expanding worker rights—particularly expanding the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act to H-2A workers—remains a sticking point.
Food economists say the availability of migrant labor is directly related to lower food costs. Work is “the only thing I think is important,” said Jason Lask, a food economist at Purdue University.
“Some of that, as far as immigration is concerned, is certainly controversial,” Lusk said, but that an improvement in the labor supply would be “impactful in terms of food prices and agriculture.”
Bennett said talks are continuing, and he argued that Congress should make it a priority this fall, given nationwide concerns about food prices.
“Senator Crabow and I continue to work to introduce a Senate Companion to the House-passed Agricultural Workforce Modernization Act,” Bennett said in a statement. “With the high prices Americans are seeing in the grocery store, we must get that bill passed ASAP.”
A Bennet spokesperson told POLITICO that his employees “spoke at length with the leadership staff in the House and Senate about the importance of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.”
But Bozeman said he “hasn’t heard much about it as much as it is a priority from the leadership”.
So far, negotiations on the bill have been limited to a handful of people, and several key senators remain unknown about their progress. This left some pessimism about the prospects for any movement on the bill this year.
Another GOP member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Mike Brown (Ind.), said the bill “is not on [Senate’s] Radar as far as I know.
Brown also highlighted the obstacle facing every immigration bill in the current Senate: Republicans’ desire to tackle the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border before addressing any other aspect of the issue.
“The issue of work comes up a lot, in the sense of agriculture, and some industries are finding it difficult to find employees,” Brown said. “I think this is one of the very big losses [of] Lack of border security… If you’re not talking about border security, even the things you care about doing, it’s hard to roll up your sleeves and work on it. So I think that’s why it hasn’t gained much traction.”
Bipartisan House members and other advocates of the bill argue that it does not represent a major change in immigration policy but rather a vital solution to the labor problem that is haunting farmers and driving up consumer costs.
“Over the past 481 days, we’ve had several conversations with our colleagues in the Senate,” the Representative said. Newhouse (Rwash). “The Senate moves differently than the House of Representatives and we understand that and we usually applaud that, but time is running out.”
The House version of the bill would establish a process by which U.S. farm workers illegally could apply to become a “certified agricultural worker,” an appointment that would last for five and a half years, removing the risk of deportation. Applicants will be required to have a work history in the United States and will also have a pathway to obtaining a green card or citizenship in the future.
It will also establish 20,000 year-round H-2A visas for farm workers. H-2A, a program in which agricultural workers can obtain visas to work on farms in the United States, has grown in popularity as farms have been unable to find domestic workers. But the program has a schedule that does not allow recipients to work year-round – a problem for operations that need workers at all times of the year, such as dairy farms.
While agricultural industry groups generally support the bill’s efforts to reform the guest worker system, the most powerful of them is lobbying against a proposal to expand migrant worker protections by expanding the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act to include H-2A workers.
“The expansion of the MSPA program will expose farmers to petty lawsuits,” said Alison Crittenden, director of government affairs for the US Bureau of Agriculture.
Crittenden also noted the Bureau of Agriculture’s longstanding resistance to the bill’s wage policy and extended H-2A visa caps — both of which are part of ongoing Senate talks.
If the Senate bill includes these provisions, opposition from the Office of Agriculture could deter many Republicans from supporting it. But many Democrats and allied pressure groups would be disappointed if they were dropped, putting the bill’s authors in a delicate position — and delaying negotiations.
“MSPA protections are minimal, and farm workers – whom the previous administration deemed essential – are entitled to equal rights under the law regardless of their visa status,” said Andrew Walchuk, senior policy advisor and director of government relations at Farmworker Justice. “Removing MSPA coverage will eliminate the chances of the FWMA passing through the Senate and back in the House.”
Crittenden of the Farm Bureau said the group recognizes that time is running out to get something through this Congress. “There is a sense of urgency from the Bureau of Agriculture and other agricultural stakeholders to finally accomplish agricultural employment reform,” she said. “However, it is also critical that the legislation introduced in the Senate addresses our concerns in an objective manner.”