Members of Congress, farm and labor interests joined in support of a new ag labor reform bill that they hope will become a “Christmas miracle” and gain passage before Congress adjourns for the year, despite continued GOP resistance.  

The Affordable and Secure Food Act, introduced Thursday by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is a modified version of the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Bennet's bill would reform the H-2A visa program – expanding it to year-round jobs for the first time - while modernizing the application process, mandating E-verify, capping some wage increases and providing additional protections for farm workers.

The bill provides a 10-year pathway to legalization for the estimated 450,000 to 600,000 workers currently employed in the ag workforce. Bennet said this is “not amnesty” but rather a pathway to apply for a green card to help bring farmworkers out of the shadows. 

“You could draw a straight line from these higher (food) prices and the crisis of farm labor,” Bennet emphasized. “This not only drives up food prices, but also drives many family farms and ranches out of business.”

Bennet's legislation also includes an adjustment on wage rates for current farm workers. If the bill doesn’t go into effect, average farmworker wages will increase 8.5% across the country. The Senate version freezes wages for one year, and then caps the increase at 3%, slightly lower than the House’s version of 3.25%. The bill's proponents argue the change would provide an increase of $2 billion in savings to farmers who employ H-2A workers on top of the $21 billion the House bill 

The FWMA's lead House Republican sponsor, Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said he’s living the challenges created by the lack of legal labor.

“It's not rocket science to figure out how we going to have an adequate labor force that's legal. Without that we know what's going to happen: our crops will go unharvested and our already very delicate food supply chain will be placed at further risk,” said Newhouse, a farmer in central Washington.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said border security concerns have been used by some of his fellow Republicans to oppose the legislation.

But he argued the bill "is a way of helping the situation there," specifically pointing to the increase in H-2A visas for year-round agriculture solves some of those problems by encouraging legal entry into the country and also takes some of the guesswork out of programs that have the ability to relieve pressure on the border.

Bennet had been negotiating for months with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, seeking to find a bill that could serve as a Senate version of the FWMA that might gain the support of a wider array of farm groups. The American Farm Bureau Federation was a notable exception from the group of FWMA supporters, citing wage provisions and a desire for stronger employer protections in the legislation.

Bennet and Crapo were ultimately unable to come to reach agreement.

Still, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said Bennet’s bill represents an evolution from the House’s version. Conner said agriculture and farm worker groups have been meeting with senators to educate them on the importance of passing a bill before this Congress ends.  

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“Some say there will be opportunities to deal with ag immigration and labor issues in the next Congress or perhaps at a later time. This is wrong," Conner said. "A sharply divided Congress in the years ahead will not have the appetite to deal with this issue.”

Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said the Senate bill's E-Verify mandate is another important change sought by Republicans and requested by businesses who utilize H-2A workers.

Bennet's bill still lacks the backing of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which remains concerns about how H-2A wages would be set.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Sam Kieffer, AFBF's vice president of public policy, said that while the Senate version is an improvement over the House-passed FWMA, Congress needs to find a “solution that meets today’s farm and ranch demands from day one.”

Kieffer added, “It’s problematic that the proposal codifies the flawed methodology of the Department of Labor’s farm labor survey, which has led to wild swings in wage rates that are beyond the reach of many farmers. Farmers and their employees need a system that provides long-term stability.”

Supporters of the bill include NCFC, ABIC-Action, the International Fresh Produce Association, AmericanHort, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Western Growers, National Potato Council, U.S. Apple Association, American Mushroom Institute, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, National Farmers Union, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, United Farm Workers, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Voces Unidas de las Montañas.

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