Although Farm Bureau has been pushing Congress to fix the immigration system for the last 20 years – the next three weeks could prove pivotal in finally getting something done to address agriculture’s worsening labor shortage, while securing votes for the 2018 farm bill in the U.S. House.
A House vote on Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.), SAF Act, a broad immigration reform bill that would also create a new “H-2C” visa for both year-round and seasonal agriculture jobs, is seen as a deal-breaker in swaying enough House Republicans to vote in support of the House version of the 2018 farm bill, according to Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) National Legislative Counsel, John Kran.
“Several members in Congress who voted against the 2018 farm bill did so to force a vote on Goodlatte’s broader immigration legislation,” Kran said. “U.S. House leadership has established June 22 as the deadline for reconsidering the 2018 farm bill, which means the immigration measures need to be considered within the next three weeks.”
There’s also a push in the House for additional immigration votes on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and border security, but they don’t address any of agriculture’s concerns.
The AG Act, just one of several immigration measures within the Goodlatte package introduced last October, would permit 450,000 H-2C visas a year with allowances to adjust that number depending on agricultural labor needs.
Although there are far more than 450,000 seasonal and year-round agricultural jobs in the U.S., this push is the first time in more than five years Congress is having a serious debate on helping farmers find labor.
Paul Schlegel, American Farm Bureau Federation managing director of public policy and economics, said it’s past time for Congress to get the immigration system overhauled. He said one of the first things to address is how to grant legal status to the workforce that’s already in the country.
“We are now dependent, to a large degree, on hundreds of thousands of workers who would like to get legal status, and we want to get them legal status,” Schlegel said. “So stabilization of our existing workforce is a principal element that has to be addressed.”
Schlegel said while the AG Act improves the guest worker program, the final immigration reform package must have an affordable guest worker program that embraces all of agriculture, that’s not bureaucratic, and ultimately provides a reasonable process for employers to secure workers when they need them.
“It’s an affordable program, and it moves to the Department of Agriculture, it’s less expensive for growers, so there are very, very many ways that the guest worker program is positive,” Schlegel said, referring to the Goodlatte’s AG Act.
“The other aspect, our short-term issue on stabilization of the existing workforce, is where the bill falls short. We have been in ongoing discussions with the chairman and his staff. It’s not, frankly, where we’d like it to be at the moment, but we certainly want to make sure that if the House passes any kind of legislation, they have something on agriculture.”
With growing concerns about immigration and its connection to the House farm bill’s passage, Schlegel said the House will have to take action soon. He said Farm Bureau’s main concern is that ag labor be included in an immigration reform package.
“We expect something will happen in the month of June, maybe in the third week of June, but we don’t yet know what a package is going to look like and we are trying feverishly to make sure that if there’s some new vehicle that is going to get voted on and pass, that it addresses at least some aspects of agricultural labor,” Schlegel said.