When it comes to the need for a better foreign guest-worker program for farmers, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue cast aside the usual restraint shown by federal administrators Monday and asked state ag administrators at a conference in Hartford, Conn., to support a bill now idling and near death in the House of Representatives.

The Agricultural Guestworker Act, approved last October by the House Judiciary Committee in a close, partisan vote, would create a new H-2C non-immigrant visa for aliens, authorizing up to 18 months at a time for seasonal workers in the U.S., but up to 36 months for year-round farmworkers, with subsequent periods of 18 months.

Since the 115th Congress is near adjournment, and the Senate has taken no action on the matter, don’t expect a guest-worker bill to pass this year.

But with the economy growing, many farmworkers are leaving for urban and other higher paying jobs. "The labor situation in agriculture is getting even tighter than it had been,” Perdue told members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), ranking the worsening farm labor shortage with international trade and regulatory reform as his priorities for helping the farm sector.

Perdue did not address the administration’s progress on its own plan, which is supposed to be ready by 2020. It would try to improve the longstanding H-2A seasonal farmworker program, including mandated use of E-Verify to confirm all applicants’ legal presence in the country, offer a new online platform for H-2A applications, and potentially make USDA the entry point for H-2A applications.

Nonetheless, Perdue argued Monday, “we need a stable, reliable legal agricultural workforce in the country. It is important,” He praised House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte's bill to replace the seasonal H-2A farm guest-worker program, saying it “addresses as much as we can address right now . . . to give our farmers and agribusiness . . . a guest worker program without having the shadows of illegality hanging over them all of the time.”

Interested in more news about the farm bill, trade issues, pesticide regulations and more hot topics?

Sign up here for a four-week Agri-Pulse free trial. No risk and no obligation to pay.

Asked by reporters about the Trump administration’s position on issues such as the farm bill and conservation programs, Perdue demurred: “It’s not our role or our responsibility to advocate to do one or the other,” he said, noting the separation of powers among branches of government.

Still, despite the House immigration bill's opposition from members of both parties, Perdue called for support, since it would “give the secretary of agriculture an opportunity to gauge the demand (for foreign farmworkers), and also an escalator clause to raise the number of guest workers.” Also, he pointed out the proposed reform would accommodate some year-round guest workers – needed in dairy, poultry and other livestock operations – while the present H-2A “has a seasonality restriction that does not work well” for year-round operators. The proposal would “provide some certainty of a guest-worker program," he said.

For more news, go to: www.agri-pulse.com