Vilsack pledges Biden will help pass ag immigration bill
After a meeting on prospects for passage of a farm labor immigration bill today, June 17, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he had made a commitment to Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and farm lobbyists “on the part of the president to get this done.”
Vilsack made the statement to reporters after he met with Bennet, Crapo and the 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 has passed a bill, but the Senate has been resistant to passing the House bill and no Senate bill has been released.
Vilsack said that 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 that 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 the lobbyists who met with reporters after Vilsack left said that Crapo said he would help gather support for the bill. Bennet said at the meeting that he needs help to convince 60 senators to vote for the bill.
A Crapo spokesperson said the reason Crapo did not join in the news conference is that he had to go to a Senate Finance Committee meeting.
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. Today’s 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 that 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 today, 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 that the farm labor issue affects every state and that 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 that she also believes Crapo’s support is a strong signal that passage is possible this year.
Speaking of the continued lack of support from Farm Bureau, Romero noted that 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 that 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.”
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