An effort to overhaul immigration laws got off to a rocky start on Capitol Hill when the White House plan developed by Jared Kushner got a decidedly cool reception in the Senate.

The plan, outlined last week, focuses on making the legal immigration system more “merit-based.” It was supposed to be the first step in a two-step process, with step two addressing fixes to ag labor programs.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., quipped that it was probably a good thing that the plan omitted ag labor. “Why get on a horse that’s not going anywhere?”

But Roberts said Kushner, who heads the Office of American Innovation in the White House, remains interested in improving farmers’ access to foreign labor through an improved guest worker program.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who sat in on a meeting about the plan a few weeks ago with President Donald Trump and Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, says immigration reform would be a heavy lift even if it included provisions addressing agricultural labor needs and legalized Dreamers, adults who were brought to the country illegally as children.

The Kushner plan was a non-starter for Senate Democrats in part because it didn’t address the Dreamers, who were given temporary legal status during the Obama administration under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner, White House

The plan is designed to secure the border, attract highly skilled workers, and level the playing field for all workers by using a more competitive approach.

“I don’t know that even that particular proposal even with a DACA fix and H-2A issues would pass, because we’ve been down this path before,” Cramer told Agri-Pulse.

But Cramer would like to see improvements to the H-2A agricultural visa program added to Trump’s proposal. He sees H-2A as a merit-based program.

Cramer said the H-2A issue could potentially be added to a package that Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has in the works.

“You need something to work off of and that may be a place to (start),” Cramer said.

Graham’s bill, known as the Secure and Protect Act of 2019, would treat unaccompanied minors from Central America the same as minors from Canada and Mexico. It would also allow families to be held together for 100 days rather than the current 20-day limit and would add 500 new immigration judges to reduce the backlog in asylum cases. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Agri-Pulse he looks forward to reviewing the president’s proposal and pushed Senate Democrats to “get serious” about working with Republicans on immigration.

“We are a nation of immigrants and we must preserve that rich part of who we are. But we are a nation of laws,” McConnell said in a statement. “(We must) restore the rule of law to our nation, which includes reforming out-of-date legal authorities.”

Farm groups say a shortage of labor is increasing their costs and H-2A is too restrictive. Many growers say it’s also critical to provide legal status to existing farmworkers who are in the country illegally.

“We’re the biggest ag state and there is no American labor,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said. “It’s all mostly immigrant labor and I think people have to reconcile themselves to that.”

H-2A is particularly difficult for dairy farms to use because workers can only be imported for seasonal labor; dairy farms need workers year-round.

“This is a very extensive problem (in the) dairy (industry). They are very nervous about the legal status of their workers. Literally the cows could not get milked without these workers,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Issuances of H-2A visas have tripled since 2007, growing at an average of 13 percent a year, according to a Center for Immigration Studies report. Over 50 percent of workers in the program are concentrated in Washington, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and California.

Chuck Conner, NCFC

Chuck Conner, NCFC

Twenty percent of all workers with H-2A visas worked in just four crop categories in 2017. They were apple, tobacco, blueberries, and fruits, according to the CIS report.

The U.S. Apple Association has pushed for H-2A reforms for the past decade. Senior Vice President Diane Kurrle said the program “needs to be built for the 21st Century” to address today’s challenges.

“Getting (workers) here is often cumbersome, bureaucratic, expensive and there are delays (with the H-2A) program as well,” Kurrle said.

Whether it’s truck drivers or picking fruits and vegetables, “there just aren’t enough people available to do the kind of work that needs to be done,” Daren Coppock, president and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association, said.

Coppock added it’s difficult to pass an immigration bill because it’s hard to get everyone to agree. This includes not only includes Republicans and Democrats but organizations, farmers, and farm-labor organizations.

Democratic Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents California’s Salinas Valley, said the issue will require bipartisan cooperation.

“If you are serious about it, you need to have all sides at the table to get out the details and grind down on where there can be compromise,” Panetta said. “It’s not easy and it takes time.”

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