Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sparred with Republican senators Wednesday over a House-passed bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, and the sharp exchanges showcased the divisions that have stalled immigration reform for decades.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the importance of immigrant farmworkers to U.S. agriculture, Vilsack urged the Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would also allow for up to 20,000 H-2A workers to be employed year-around. The program is now limited to seasonal labor. 

The bill, which the House approved in March with some GOP support, also would streamline the H-2A process and simplify the dispute resolution process for producers and farmworkers, the secretary said.

But some Republicans characterized the bill's worker legalization provisions as “amnesty” — a description Vilsack said “puzzled” him. He asked Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., how he could describe the legalization process as amnesty “when this bill provides for the payment of a fine of $1,000, I don’t quite understand why we’re talking about amnesty?”

“Because it is amnesty, and I think most Americans see it as amnesty, and I see it as amnesty,” Kennedy responded. 

Republicans also questioned Vilsack’s explanation of why immigrants want to come to the U.S. and said the border must be secure before they will consider legalizing existing immigrants. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that extending citizenship to even one worker under the farmworker bill would result in “a run on the border.”

Vilsack disagreed, noting that the bill's requirements to qualify for citizenship apply to farmworkers who have already been in the country for a “long time.” For example, the bill provides a path to a green card for workers with 10 years of agricultural work, so long they complete four more years of such work.

Graham called the idea of passing the farmworker legislation “ass-backwards,” insisting that the situation at the border needs to be addressed first. 

Vilsack said people are flocking to this country from central America because of poor economic conditions in their home countries, including food shortages.

“We have to take a look at how to create better opportunities south of our border,” he said. “The key is helping them build their own economy.”

Graham and Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, however, said the influx of immigrants at the border is not a function of changed economic conditions over the past year but of the Biden administration’s decisions to stop building the border wall; reinstating the practice of not detaining immigrants until their immigration hearings; and abandoning the “remain in Mexico” policy where the U.S. government would return asylum seekers to Mexico to await court dates.

“Your answers on immigration were fertilizer,” Cruz told Vilsack, saying “poverty didn’t magically appear” on Inauguration Day.

“This is a crisis, this administration caused it, and this committee doesn’t even want to have a hearing,” he said.

Democrats, however, spoke in favor of the farmworker bill. In his opening statement, Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the FWMA “landmark legislation” that would “fundamentally change the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers who came to our rescue during the darkest days of the pandemic.  And it would allow them to continue doing their essential work without fear of deportation.”

The legislation has the support of at least 80 farm groups, Durbin said. Among them are the Western Growers Association, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and the National Milk Producers Federation.

NMPF released a statement Wednesday in which President and CEO Jim Mulhern said, “We must provide an earned legal protection for our current workers and their families [and] we must reform the agricultural guestworker visa program so dairy and other year-round industries can use it to supplement the domestic workforce when needed.”

Half of the 20,000 year-round H-2A workers authorized in the bill would be set aside for the dairy industry.

Some other major groups, however, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, are opposing the FWMA in part because they say it would make it easier for employees to sue producers. Durbin, responding to that criticism when raised by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the bill does not create a new cause of action for farmworkers, but simply codifies an already existing right.

AFBF President Zippy Duvall sent a letter to the committee saying "Congress must recognize the dangers of incomplete, shortsighted agricultural labor reform initiatives" and urging broad-based reform of the H-2A program.

Witnesses at the hearing took different positions on the FWMA. Former United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, Owyhee (Oregon) Produce CEO Shay Myers and farmer Linnea Kooistra of Illinois all supported it.

Kooistra said her family sold its dairy cows in 2018 because it was worried about losing its immigrant workforce, whom she praised as “loyal, dedicated workers” who were also highly skilled.

Fifty-one percent of the workers on dairy farms are immigrants, she told the committee, and dairy farms using immigrant labor “produce 79% of the U.S. milk supply. These are not jobs that are displacing other workers.”

Myers, who was recently featured on CBS This Morning, discussed the loss of his entire asparagus crop this year when his 36 H-2A workers were delayed at the border and arrived 90 days late.

Rodriguez said UFW took part in negotiations leading to the FWMA and had made “significant concessions.” For example, he said that for undocumented farmworkers to earn Certified Agricultural Worker  status, they have to show they have worked in agriculture at least 180 days in the two years prior to the bill’s introduction (between March 8, 2019 and March 8, 2021).

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In addition, farmworkers would be excluded “from access to social safety net programs while they are under CAW status, including support to make health care and food affordable,” he told the committee.

National Pork Producers Council President Jen Sorenson called the FWMA a “step in the right direction” but criticized the cap on year-round positions, saying it would force different sectors of the livestock industry to compete against one another for workers.

“NPPC urges Congress to address this pressing matter by opening the H-2A visa program to year-round labor without a cap,” she said.

Leon Sequeira, assistant secretary of labor for policy during the George W. Bush administration who now advises employers and trade associations about employment and immigration issues, said the FWMA “contains a few provisions that would make some limited positive changes to the H-2A program.”

However, “many other provisions of the bill would make the H-2A program more unpredictable, complicated, costly, and would subject farmers to significant increased legal liability.”

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