Agriculture and farmworker groups met with key senators and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a bid to jump-start congressional action on ag labor reform.

The meeting that included Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, came nearly three months after the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide a path to legal status for existing workers while expanding the H-2A visa program and reforming H-2A wage rates. Bennett and Crapo are the Senate leaders for the issue, but they have yet to introduce their version of the House bill.

The bill passed the House 247-174 with 30 Republican votes. 

“This is the year we need to get it done,” Bennet told reporters after the meeting. He also said he hoped House bill wouldn’t need many changes.

Vilsack told the groups USDA will do what it can do help. “It is incredibly important because of the size and scope and impact of agriculture and food to the country’s economy and national security that we get this done,” Vilsack said.

But Republicans have resisted moving any immigration reform bills while they say the border is in crisis because of illegal immigration. According to Customs and Border Protection, agents encountered 180,034 persons attempting entry along the Southwest border in May. The number was 23,000 the same time last year, according to CBP.

“Until there is something done at the border, I don’t think you’ll have any immigration reform,” the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa told reporters Wednesday.

Crapo said the border issue should be considered separately from the ag labor concerns. “But if those kinds of (border) issues get imposed onto the effort to revolve ag labor issues, then it clearly could have a detrimental effect,” he told Agri-Pulse

Another meeting attendee, Allison Crittenden of the American Farm Bureau, said there are several issues in the House bill that still need to be addressed, including its H-2A wage provisions, a cap on year-round H-2A visas, and a provision allowing H-2A workers to sue farms. Farm Bureau did not support the House bill.

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Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, thinks her group can resolve its differences with Farm Bureau, but she said there were farmworker groups who did not like the compromises made in the House bill.  

“What we need to understand is that farmworkers are essential and deserve a path to legalization,” she told Agri-Pulse.

Other groups that were represented at the meeting included the Western Growers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Potato Council, United Fresh Produce Association, Farmworker Justice, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste.

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, was unable to attend the meeting but issued a statement saying that his group "looks forward to continuing to work with Sens. Crapo and Bennet on a Senate bill which answers agriculture’s workforce challenges and helps ensure dairy farmers and farmworkers can continue providing our nation and world with healthy, affordable food.”