WASHINGTON (DTN) -- After a meeting on prospects for passage of a farm-labor immigration bill Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he made a commitment "on the part of the president to get this done."
Vilsack made the statement to reporters after he met with Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, as well as farm lobbyists in the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing room to discuss how to push through the Senate a bill to allow current undocumented farmworkers to stay in the country and to bring in more workers. The House passed a bill, but the Senate so far has been resistant to considering the House bill and no Senate bill has been released.
Vilsack said both farmers and agribusiness executives, already in "a very stressful time" for many reasons, are increasingly concerned about their "current and future workforce."
Bennet, who appeared with Vilsack to speak to reporters after the meeting, said it was impressive that both the industry and the United Farm Workers had come together on the House bill. "It's so rare to reach a consensus," Bennet said.
Bennet and Vilsack appeared together at the news conference, but Crapo did not speak to the press. Bennet and lobbyists who spoke after Vilsack left the event said Crapo has committed to helping gather Republican support for the bill. Bennet said he needs help to convince 60 senators to vote for the bill.
In a statement, Crapo said, "There is no question we must deal with the insufficiencies of the existing agriculture guest worker program in order to ensure a stable and high-quality food supply across our country. The bipartisan roundtable with Secretary Vilsack, Sen. Bennet and stakeholder groups was a meaningful, collaborative discussion. It was an opportunity to engage in robust dialogue on the best path forward for legislation in the Senate."
Farm lobbyists told reporters they are focused on getting a bill through the Senate this year.
David Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents produce growers in California and other western states, said he is more optimistic about passing the bill this year than in the previous 16 years in which he has worked in the produce industry.
The combination of Bennet and Crapo along with the Biden administration "that clearly wants this to get done" is "a powerful start," Puglia said in an interview.
Puglia said his members are increasingly investing in operations in Mexico and Central America because they can't get labor in the United States and those investments leaving the country are not good for their companies or rural communities. It is important to pass the bill this year, Puglia said, because it would be harder to pass the bill during the 2022 election year. What's needed, Puglia said, is "a formula" to get 60 votes in the Senate.
Puglia said the effort to get the bill through the House means "the policy has been vetted thoroughly," although the American Farm Bureau Federation did not support the bill.
Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for Farm Bureau, who attended the meeting, said Farm Bureau nationally wants more year-long visas and is concerned about wage rates and farmers' legal exposure. But the California Farm Bureau supported the House bill, and Crittenden noted the American Farm Bureau said it did not support the bill but did not use the word "oppose."
United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in an interview the farm labor issue affects every state and United Fresh will talk to senators from every state to encourage support for the bill.
United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero, who attended the meeting, said in an interview she also believes Crapo's support is a strong signal passage is possible this year.
Speaking of the continued lack of support from Farm Bureau, Romero noted neither the industry nor the farmworkers got everything they wanted in the House bill.
"We are committed to getting this bill passed," Romero said, adding farmworkers had been declared essential during the coronavirus pandemic and made sure the country "got fed."
National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said the meeting was "very positive. During the roundtable, the industry partners committed to working with them in supporting a bill in the Senate that will secure a bipartisan 60-vote majority. We must act immediately as the current broken system means higher costs for family farms, more uncertainty for essential farmworkers, and a less secure immigration system for all Americans."
National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern was out of town and could not attend the meeting, but said in an email, "The agricultural workforce crisis is intensifying and is especially severe for dairy farmers, who cannot supplement their domestic workforce with guest workers. The Senate must act on its own ag labor reform measure so we can continue moving toward a solution that addresses the needs of our farmers and workers."
Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a longtime organizer of agriculture leaders in favor of immigration, said in a statement after the meeting, "The past 15 months have shown just how essential those who harvest crops and care for farm animals are to all of us. With negotiations getting under way on immigration reform in the Senate, now is the time to act. I'd also like to commend Sens. Bennet and Crapo for taking the lead on developing a companion bill to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that passed the House earlier this year. While additional improvements are needed, the FWMA represents a good first step toward fixing agriculture's long-standing labor problems. We urge all senators to support their efforts on behalf of America's farmers and ranchers."
The House bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed that chamber in March. That bill would legalize hundreds of thousands of farm workers now in the country illegally. They could qualify for five-year renewable visas as well as options for permanent legal status depending on how long they have been in the U.S., and how long they can verify they have worked on farms. The bill also overhauls the H-2A visa program for farm workers, providing dairy farmers and other producers the opportunity to bring in workers for three-year visas, assuring year-round labor needs are met. Initially, there would be up to 20,000 initial year-round visas for the first three years -- with capacity to increase the visa volumes if the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture consider it necessary.
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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