Senate Democrats Weigh Farm Immigration Overhaul Skipping GOP

  • Some Republicans buck bill for farmworkers to get legal status
  • ‘Reconciliation is always a possibility,’ a Senate leader says

Top Democrats are weighing a pathway to bypass Republicans and revamp the immigration system for farmworkers to alleviate a labor shortage exacerbated by heat waves and pandemic-related dislocations.

Labor activists and agriculture industry groups are working together to push through the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 1603), which would create a program for agricultural workers to earn legal status. The House passed the bill in March. It has stalled in the Senate, raising the prospect of budget reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow Democrats to pass legislation without GOP support.

“Reconciliation is always a possibility” to advance the bill, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said at the Capitol this week, adding that the strategy has yet to be decided. The Democrat-only $3.5 trillion budget legislation would focus on priorities the party wasn’t able to get into a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg
Farmworkers harvest crops in Coachella, Calif., in February 2021.

Estimates suggest a majority of the nation’s roughly 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented, leaving them in legal limbo and hampering farms and dairies that often struggle to find domestic workers to do the arduous work of picking crops or slaughtering animals. That task has only gotten more difficult with the pandemic—and more recently, with record-breaking temperatures in the West, which led to the death of Oregon farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez in late June.

“Farmworkers are now imperiled by a perfect storm of three deadly plagues overlapping each other,” said Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, referring to extreme summer temperatures, Covid-19 outbreaks, and a lack of immigration status.

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat who also serves as Judiciary Committee chair, is joining forces with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to push the legislation—with only Democrats on board if necessary.

Senate Republicans acknowledge the problem for the agriculture industry, while voicing reservations about the bill, including the risk of encouraging illegal immigration.

“The intent of the bill can stand a chance,” Judiciary Committee member Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who attended the panel’s hearing on immigrant farmworkers, said this week. “Whether or not it’s this bill, or an alternative that bridges the gap between the stakeholders, that’s what we’ve got to work on.”

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‘Long Overdue’

The food and farm sectors are only beginning to recover from losses incurred during the pandemic. The Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization, estimates at least 13,685 farmworkers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 107 have died as of Friday. The recent heat waves have only brought sector issues into sharper focus.

“I’ve worked on farmworker legislation for years and can tell you this is long overdue,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who added that she’ll work to pass the bill in her chamber. California ranks first in the nation for agriculture production.

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) intend to cosponsor their chamber’s companion legislation, but timing is yet to be determined as negotiations continue, Bennet said this week.

“We’re not going to demand a perfect bill out of the Senate,” said Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, who joined a June agriculture immigration roundtable with Bennet, Crapo, and Vilsack. “We just want the process to drive forward until we ultimately get the bill to the president’s desk.”

This year is the ideal time for that to happen before lawmakers turn their attention to the midterm elections, Quarles said in a telephone interview.

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Higher Senate Profile

The original House measure spearheaded by Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) advanced this session with 30 Republicans voting in favor. Still, when the bill was first introduced in 2019, it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee— where it sits now.

Durbin is raising the bill’s profile, calling it “landmark legislation” at this week’s hearing on immigrant farmworkers.

“When we debate legislation like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, what we’re really debating is the future of America and particularly rural America,” he said in remarks. “Let’s invest in that future with hardworking, good people.”

Vilsack told the hearing the bill would help farmworkers gain higher wages and better working conditions through legal status. It would also give employers stability and fund housing for laborers, he said.

“Folks who express skepticism about being able to do comprehensive immigration reform—that skepticism is well-earned over the years,” he said. “This is an opportunity to take a positive, proactive step forward.”

Reconciliation Option

Republican Judiciary Committee members Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) argued at the hearing that the bill could boost the rate of illegal immigration.

To get GOP members on board with the farmworker measure, it would take “a miracle,” said panel member John Kennedy (R-La.) at the Capitol this week. “We’re not going to change the immigration laws, and, more specifically, pass amnesty until we get control of the border.”

Republican Tillis also pointed to changes needed for H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas, along with H-2B temporary non-agricultural worker visas, to solve longer-term challenges for recruiting workers.

Republican cooperation means the bill could move through regular order, but, “if reconciliation becomes our only route, then I’m more than happy to pursue that,” said Senate Judiciary Committee member Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) after the Wednesday hearing.

With assistance from Elizabeth Elkin

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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