Washington Insider-- Thursday

Some Hope for Ag Worker Program

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Vilsack Signals TPA Renewal Request Coming

There has been little from the Biden administration on the prospect for renewing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), but USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday made clear the administration will seek its renewal. Renewing TPA is “the only way, eventually, for us to have trade agreements that create that balance,” Vilsack said, noting there was a “very delicate balance” needed on several issues in a trade agreement.

“So I'm hoping that Congress, during the course of this year, begins to get serious about resuming and extending Trade Promotion Authority, which will then give us the opportunity to complete negotiations.”

Under TPA, an administration can negotiate trade deals and present them to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments.

Vilsack said at an event organized by the Virginia governor's office that it was a key for U.S. trade policy ahead since it prevents there from being “535 new negotiators” on trade deals—the 100 members of the U.S. Senate and the 435 House members.

Vilsack also focused on enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in his remarks, noting the coming Mexican restrictions on imports of GMO corn. However, last week Vilsack noted that the coming rules in Mexico would not apply to corn imported by the country for feed use, but only that destined for human consumption. As for a U.S.-UK or U.S.-European Union (EU) trade deal, Vilsack stressed the need for a “science-based” set of trade rules. The British Ambassador to the U.S., Dame Karen Pierce, also addressed the meeting, noting their exit from the EU will potentially ease up the ability of the reaching a trade deal with the U.S.

While not signaling a shift on GMOs, Pierce did state she believed that gene-edited products should be treated differently and not regulated like GMO crops. “We've requested public input on a possible change to regulations,” she noted. This appears to mark some of the first comments from the Biden administration on TPA and its renewal as the current authority expires in July.

USDA Sets WHIP-Plus Closeout Deadline

USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) has set April 16 as the deadline to have all Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program-Plus (WHIP-Plus) applications finalized and approved for payment, effectively the closeout for the program.

A signup deadline of October 30, 2020, was set for the program relative to 2018 and 2019 losses, and the April 16 date now marks a deadline for county FSA offices to have those applications finalized.

Washington Insider: Some Hope for Ag Worker Program

Bloomberg is reporting this week that a bill that would create a program to allow agricultural workers to earn legal immigration status has the potential to break through a partisan logjam in the Senate — if it is revised to address some “GOP concerns.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act which passed the House earlier this month, would overhaul the immigration system for farmworkers and alter the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program, cementing a stable workforce for employers and more protections for laborers.

“The bill has a lot of merit. I think there's an opportunity to improve it yet,” said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, the top Republican on the Senate subcommittee that oversees conservation, climate, forestry, and natural resources matters. “I support the overall concept, but it needs some tweaks,” he said at the Capitol last week.

Backers of the legislation also would have to bring on board Republicans who see a greater priority in stemming the growing numbers of immigrants coming over the border with Mexico, Bloomberg said.

Most of the nation's roughly 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented according to administration estimates — a problem for them, as well as for the farms and dairies that often struggle to find workers. “If this bill becomes law, these workers can avoid the lingering fear of deportation or their children's concern about whether their parents will come home from work each night,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights organization.

The House passed the measure spearheaded by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., on March 18 with 30 Republicans voting in favor — a wider margin of GOP support than for the American Dream and Promise Act that passed the same day. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, plan to introduce the bill's companion, with Bennet optimistic more Republicans will sign on to fix systemic flaws in the farmworker immigration system.

Republicans and Democrats who recognize the system's problems introduced a bill in 2019 that was passed by the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Industry groups, such as the United Fresh Produce Association, say reforms have been needed for decades.

Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, points to the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House as reasons the reintroduced bill could fare better this year — along with lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic.

In its current iteration, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would give agricultural workers and their spouses and minor children a path to gain legal status through continued employment, with a path toward a green card. It would offer as many as 20,000 H-2A visas annually for three years for year-round agricultural employers, such as those in the dairy industry.

The White House backed Lofgren and Newhouse's version of the bill. Many farm and food trade groups, including the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, also support the legislation.

“Passing this bill would give these farm workers the chance to earn legal status and bring more certainty to farming operations across the country,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D., Ill., said. He urged the Senate to join the House in taking up the measure.

Several farm-state Democrats point to a need for immigration system changes with the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for “efforts to fix the system, including creating a pathway to citizenship for individuals and addressing inequities in guest worker programs.”

However, top Republican senators are mixed on the legislation. Senator Crapo doesn't back the House version, press secretary Melanie Lawhorn said, adding that he and Bennet are working to put finishing touches on their own language.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who voted for the original bill, suggested revisions, such as extending the time period required as an agricultural employee to maintain visa status and cutting a provision that would include H-2A workers under U.S. federal law that protects some workers with set employment standards.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., an Agriculture Committee freshman, plans to discuss the bill and weigh support for it at the Alabama Farmers Federation, his state's largest farm organization. “I told them, when I got on this committee, I'm going to bring everything to them,” he said at the Capitol. “I think they'll be pretty strong with it.”

However, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., doesn't see an immediate future for the measure. Republicans have criticized the Biden administration over its immigration policies as migrants—especially unaccompanied children—continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Now is not the time to take up this bill given the ongoing crisis at our southern border,” he said. “Our discussions on immigration must focus on ending the humanitarian crisis and securing the border before we move any other legislation that pertains to this issue.”

So, we will see. Immigration continues to be among the hottest of hot button issues, although producers who depend on seasonal labor do provide a strong basis of support. The issue is clearly one producers should watch closely as it is debated Washington Insider believes.

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