Ag Policy Blog

Senate Reconciliation Bill Could Address Farmworker Immigration Status

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
A farm worker straightens tomato plants on a commercial farm in Florida. The Senate reconciliation bill being developed by Senate Democrats could include language that would provide legal status for farm workers. (DTN file photo by Jim Patrico)

The reconciliation bill that Senate Democrats are preparing could include a provision to cover immigration status for essential workers including farm workers, but there is debate over whether Senate rules would allow an immigration measure to be included.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Budget Committee, is pushing to pass a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, "Dreamers" and other undocumented immigrants as part of the spending bill, reported KQED, a San Francisco radio station.

"Creating new paths to citizenship will grow our economy and improve workplaces for all. And that's exactly the purpose of the infrastructure investments that we are developing," Padilla said.

Advocates of immigration law reform say the reconciliation bill may be the best opportunity to pass it because the bill will require only Democratic votes. But the question is whether the Senate parliamentarian will allow an immigration measure in a budget bill.

The House has already passed a Farmworker Modernization Act and the bill is under consideration in the Senate.

Advocates for farm businesses and workers say they have heard Democratic leaders may include immigration reform for farm workers but are not sure what the plan is.

A spokesman for National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner, who heads the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, said the group is hearing the reports and continues to work with a bipartisan group of senators on ag labor legislation that addresses both the current workforce and future labor needs of agriculture.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said, "Our understanding is that Senate Democratic leadership plans to include provisions in the budget resolution for an earned legalization program for undocumented farmworkers, as well as for Dreamers, TPS [Temporary Protected Status] holders, and essential workers."

"The precise language and mechanism are still unclear. If the budget resolution passes, the Senate Judiciary Committee would be responsible for the details of these provisions in the final reconciliation bill. We are encouraged by this effort as immigration reform for farmworkers is desperately needed and has been put off for far too long."

A spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, which is pushing for farmworkers to be allowed to stay in the United States year round, said, "We don't know at this time how 'essential workers' would be defined and wouldn't speculate as to who that would include. We certainly are open to any solutions that would help provide dairy the year-round, stable workforce it needs."

But NMPF noted that on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., an early sponsor of the Farmworkers Modernization Act, participated in a roundtable discussion at the State University of New York in Cobleskill that included farm worker issues. In a report by New York media, Vilsack said the immigration system is broken.

"We need stability in the system," Vilsack said in the Oneota (N.Y.) Daily Star. "There are 2.2 million farm workers in the country and 75% of those are immigrants. Fifty-one percent are documented or have green cards, 49% are undocumented. Of those immigrants, 83% are Hispanic. They work hard on these farms. They work six to seven days a week, eight to 10 hours per day. They work to support their family at home."

Delgado's office said that before Vilsack met with Delgado's Agriculture Advisory Committee, the secretary led a discussion focused on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Leaders from the New York Farm Bureau, United Farm Workers, Office of the New York Commissioner of Agriculture, New York State Vegetable Growers Association, Northeast Dairy Producers, SUNY Cobleskill, local farmers, and upstate farmworkers participated in the roundtable, Delgado said.

"Without Senate action, the hard-won progress lawmakers have made on ag-labor issues won't bring the solutions farmers need," National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said.

"We need this conversation to turn into action in congressional corridors so that farmers and farmworkers can benefit from a workable labor system."

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero said she and two farm workers participated in the discussion.

"Farm workers work in dangerous conditions to feed this country," Romero said. "Farm workers are at the core of our food supply -- we must protect the essential frontline agricultural workers. It's critical that the Senate take up the Farm Workforce Modernization Act for immediate consideration."

A federal court ruling that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is illegal may also put more pressure on Democrats to take action on immigration reform.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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