Farmers are eager for Senate to vote on migrant worker bill

Tensions are growing between the agriculture industry’s top Washington lobby group and some producers over an immigration bill that could make it easier to employ migrants in the food production industry.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has expressed opposition to the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), but many growers are eager for the Senate to take up the bill, which they say would help tackle food inflation.

“Throughout the development of the FWMA in the House, AFBF has pointed to several key areas in which the legislation conflicts with AFBF policy. Provisions concerning the [Adverse Effect Wage Rate Rule (AEWR)], the expansion of [the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA)] to H-2A [temporary agricultural visas], caps on year-round visas, and the inclusion of e-verify only for agriculture without adequately reforming H-2A first are the main issues of concern,” an AFBF spokesperson told The Hill.

AFBF director of government affairs Allison Crittenden told Politico in July that the bill’s expansion of MSPA protections to temporary migrant workers would expose ranchers and farmers to “frivolous litigation.”

The MSPA protections, which would essentially allow migrant workers to sue over labor violations, are a major sticking point for Senate negotiations.

But a new study by the American Business Immigration Coalition shows that MSPA lawsuits are uncommon — of 513,137 farms with hired workers from January of 2020 to July of 2022, only 34 farms were sued in 36 court cases.

That means that only 0.006 percent of farms have been party to such a lawsuit over the last two-and-a-half years.

And the American Business Immigration Coalition study concluded that the potential increase in MSPA lawsuits would be negligible, as migrant workers under H-2A guest worker visas make up only 11 percent of the farm workforce.

Still, the FWMA is a study in competing political priorities.

At its core, the bill is a compromise solution crafted between immigration reform advocates and representatives of rural, agricultural districts.

The first House-passed version of the bill was crafted in part by moderates from both parties, like longtime immigration reform advocate Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and former Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

But it also paired progressive immigration advocates like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and staunch agricultural district conservatives like Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.).

Support from diverse political backgrounds gave the bill’s sponsors hope that it could cut through Congress’s inability to find immigration compromise, but Democratic Senate leaders are wary of risking the bill to a filibuster vote.

Few, if any, of the bill’s supporters expect it to come to a vote before November’s midterm elections — some are hopeful the Senate may vote on it during the lame duck session after the election.

Still, frustration is growing, particularly as the Farm Bureau’s opposition endangers an already-tenuous path to 60 votes in the Senate.

“This is not a new issue for me and for and for my industry, agriculture. We’ve been in this for 20, 25, 30 years. And if everybody would give up a little bit about a little bit of what they want, then we will all get a lot of what we need,” said Charles Wingard, vice president of field operations at WP Rawl, a major produce grower based in South Carolina.

The bill itself balances the needs of migrant workers, large and small producers, long-term and seasonal workers, and of newly arrived foreign labor versus undocumented workers with years of experience on American farms.

Under the bill, the guest visa process would be streamlined and many undocumented workers would get a chance to regularize their status, potentially taking the first step toward a path to citizenship.

While the need for a steady stream of qualified labor is a constant throughout the food production industry, there are a plethora of factors that affect the specific needs of farmers, distributors, packers and ranchers.

For instance, dairy farms require year-round labor that’s not covered by the seasonal visas, which means the dairy industry employs a disproportionate number of undocumented workers.

Another distinction is that producers on the East Coast are generally more likely to employ more recent arrivals who’ve applied to the H-2A program, while West Coast producers are more likely to rely on long-term undocumented employees.

While the bill’s sponsors have long clamored to simplify immigration processes for agricultural workers, post-pandemic food inflation and food security concerns have added urgency to pass the bill.

“Now when you sit in an office in Washington within 30, 40 miles — you take a 30-mile radius around DC – with millions of people that can’t feed themselves, they need rural America to be successful. They need U.S. farmers to have access to labor so we can continue to allow Americans to feed Americans,” said Wingard.

The Farm Bureau spokesperson said the lobbying organization shares that sense of urgency, with caveats.

“It’s important the Senate continues these bipartisan discussions to ensure a Senate ag labor solution does not include provisions that would harm American farmers and ranchers,” said the AFBF spokesperson.

“There is a sense of urgency from Farm Bureau and other agricultural stakeholders to finally accomplish ag labor reform. However, it’s also critically important the legislation that is put forward in the Senate addresses these issues in a substantive manner,” added the spokesperson.

Still, many state and local Farm Bureaus are bucking the national group’s opposition to the bill, citing different policy priorities between large, medium and small farmers.

“Any large organization, and the Farm Bureau is no different, is going to capitulate to the requests of its largest donors,” said Shay Myers, the CEO of Owyhee Produce, an onion grower in Oregon and Idaho.

And national political sentiment plays a factor, as many congressional Republicans view immigration and the border as key electoral issues.

While Republicans are keen to use immigration as a cudgel against Democrats ahead of November, often intermingling border and immigration policy, Myers said many of their constituents in agriculture see a clear division between the two issues.

“I feel like the Republican Party is maybe a little bit more right of center than the voting bloc that they actually are trying to represent,” said Myers.

And Myers warned that agriculture ultimately depends on the availability of a skilled workforce.

“Without immigrant workers, without these ag workers, these guest workers, we don’t put food on the American table. And that’s just an open secret. And we need to realize that that’s the case and fix the problem,” said Myers.

–Updated at 11:08 a.m.

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