Time is running out for an immigration deal that could help curb food inflation

Meaning. Michael Benet (D-Colo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) worked behind closed doors on a complementary package that could attract enough votes to break the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster. If they don’t start moving the bill forward before the August recess, they could run out of time this fall as lawmakers turn to the midterm campaign and other legislative priorities, like the government funding. And once the year is over, lawmakers would have to start afresh in the new Congress.

There’s “just not much time left”, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told POLITICO.

Without action, Congress could miss an opportunity to try to rein in runaway food inflation, since prices are driven in part by a shortage of farm labor. The struggle to find agricultural workers has only intensified in recent years, thanks to tougher immigration restrictions, the Covid-19 pandemic and a highly competitive labor market. And increasingly, the agricultural economy depends on foreign-born workers, including migrants brought in through the H-2A guest worker program.

But even Crapo was not optimistic about the prospects for immediate moves on the bill. “I don’t see that happening before the August break,” he said, when asked if there would be any action before then.

Several provisions passed by the House are still at issue, including wage policy, caps on the number of extended visas for agricultural workers and the extension of certain legal rights to these workers.

According to a source close to the negotiations, an agreement has been reached on salaries and the senators are close to an agreement on the question of the ceiling. But expanding worker rights — particularly extending the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Protection Act to cover H-2A workers — continues to be a sticking point.

Food economists claim that the availability of migrant labor is directly correlated to falling food costs. Work is “the only thing that I think matters,” said Jayson Lusk, a food economist at Purdue University.

“Some of this, to the extent that immigration is involved, is certainly controversial,” Lusk said, but improving labor supply would “have an impact in terms of food prices and ‘agriculture”.

Bennet said talks are continuing and argued that Congress should make it a priority this fall, given national concerns about food prices.

“Senator Crapo and I continue to work to introduce a Senate companion to the Farm Labor Modernization Act passed by the House,” Bennet said in a statement. “With the high prices Americans are seeing at the grocery store, we should pass this bill as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for Bennet told POLITICO his staff “spoke extensively with House and Senate leaders about the importance of the Farm Labor Modernization Act.”

But Boozman said he had “not really heard of it as a management priority.”

So far, negotiations on the bill have been limited to a handful of people, and many key senators remain in the dark about its progress. That leaves some pessimism about the prospects of any movement on the bill this year.

Another GOP member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, mike brown (Ind.), said the bill is “not on the [Senate’s] radar as far as I know.

Braun also pointed to the hurdle facing every immigration bill in the current Senate: Republicans’ desire to deal with the influx of undocumented immigrants crossing the border before tackling anything else. of the question.

The issue of labor “comes up a lot, in the sense of agriculture and some industries are struggling to find staff,” Braun said. “I think this is one of the victims that is very important [of] not having border security… if you don’t talk about border security, even the things you would be interested in, it’s hard to roll up your sleeves and work on it. So I think that’s why he didn’t gain much momentum.

House members from both parties and other supporters of the bill argue that it does not represent a major change in immigration policy, but rather a vital solution to a haunting labor problem. farmers and drives up consumer costs.

“Over the past 481 days, we have had several conversations with our Senate colleagues,” the representative said. Dan Newhouse (R-wash.). “The Senate moves differently than the House and we understand that and generally applaud it, but we’re running out of time.”

The House version of the bill would establish a process by which agricultural workers in the United States could illegally apply to become a “certified agricultural worker,” a designation that would last for five and a half years, removing the risk of deportation. Applicants would be required to have a work history in the United States and would also have a pathway to receiving a green card or citizenship later.

It would also establish 20,000 year-round H-2A visas for agricultural workers. H-2A, a program where farm workers can receive visas to work on farms in the United States, has gained popularity as farms have been unable to find domestic workers. But the program has a schedule that does not allow recipients to work year-round – a problem for farms that need workers at all times of the year, such as dairy farms.

While agriculture industry groups generally support the bill’s efforts to reform the guest worker system, the most powerful among them is lobbying against the proposal to expand protections for migrant workers by expanding the law on protection for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers to cover H-2A workers.

“Expanding the MSPA will expose farmers to frivolous litigation,” said Allison Crittenden, director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau.

Crittenden also noted the Farm Bureau’s longstanding resistance to the bill’s wage policy and the cap on the number of expanded H-2A visas and — both of which are part of ongoing talks in the Senate.

If the Senate bill includes these provisions, Farm Bureau opposition could dissuade many Republicans from supporting it. But many aligned Democrats and lobby groups would be disappointed if they were dropped, putting the bill’s drafters in an awkward position — and dragging out negotiations.

“MSPA protections are the bare minimum, and agricultural workers – deemed essential by the previous administration – deserve to have equal rights under the law, regardless of their visa status,” said Andrew Walchuk. , Senior Policy Advisor and Director of Government Relations at Farmworker Justice. “Removing MSPA coverage would negate the FWMA’s chances of passing the Senate and returning to the House.”

Farm Bureau’s Crittenden said the group recognizes that time is running out to pass something during this Congress. “There is a sense of urgency from the Farm Bureau and other agricultural actors to finally accomplish farm labor reform,” she said. “However, it is also extremely important that the legislation introduced in the Senate addresses our concerns in a substantive way.”


Politico

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