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Sen. Bennet unveils bill to revise agricultural visa system

Colorado Democrat says legislation can counter rising food prices by tackling farm labor shortage

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., at a hearing in May.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., at a hearing in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado unveiled long-awaited legislation Thursday to revise the agricultural visa system and offer migrant farmworkers a path to permanent residency — a last-ditch effort to enact changes after bipartisan talks fell apart.

The legislation largely mirrors the so-called Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill the House passed last year with more than two dozen Republican votes.

But notably missing from Bennet’s bill is support from Sen. Michael D. Crapo, the Idaho Republican who has been negotiating with Bennet for nearly a year on the Senate version.

Without a Republican backer in the Senate, Bennet’s bill could face slim odds in the evenly divided chamber, where bills need at least 60 votes to move forward and immigration bills get tangled in politics about U.S.-Mexico border security.

The legislation also faces a short and crowded timeframe, with less than two weeks left in the legislative calendar. Bennet announced the bill at a Thursday morning press conference alongside Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, the Republican sponsor of the House bill.

“Next week is our last best opportunity to address the labor crisis in American agriculture. And I would say, maybe our last best chance to save family farms in this country,” Bennet said at the press conference.

Negotiations stall

The Bennet-Crapo negotiations were part of multipronged efforts by various bipartisan groups of senators to pass legislation to revise parts of the U.S. immigration system this session.

Those efforts have heated up in recent weeks during the lame-duck period, seen as the last chance for Congress to pass a bill legalizing undocumented immigrants before Republicans take over the House next month.

As recently as last week, Bennet said in a brief interview at the Capitol that he was “still working” and “hopeful that we can get something over the finish line here.”

He acknowledged the closing window for action. “The time to do it is now, that’s for sure,” Bennet said on Dec. 6. “You can’t miss this opportunity.”

A spokesperson for Crapo said Thursday the two senators “were not able to reach a bipartisan agreement on critical employer-related components of the bill, despite their best efforts.”

Bennet acknowledged that he does not have any Republican senators on board for the bill but said he will be working in the last days of the 117th Congress to build support.

“There are disagreements on every side of this issue. It is inarguable that passing this legislation will be better for American agriculture than not passing this legislation. It is inarguable that this will be better for family farms than not passing this legislation. It is inarguable that this will be better for farmworkers if we pass this legislation than if we don’t,” Bennet said.

“I hope there is something of a Christmas miracle here and people come together and pass this legislation. The consequence of not passing this legislation is going to be devastating for our country.”

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who joined Bennet at the press conference put it more succinctly. “It’s crunch time,” Valadao said.

This tight window also has likely doomed separate immigration negotiations between Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., who recently shopped around their own proposal that would offer a path to citizenship for certain young immigrants brought to the country as children in exchange for heightened border security measures.

An aide for Bennet said they are hoping to see his legislation attached to the fiscal 2023 government funding package, which Democrats hope to pass next week. Tillis said last week he didn’t see his own proposal with Sinema as a candidate for that funding package.

Bill details

Bennet’s bill, dubbed the Affordable and Secure Food Act, aims to counter rising food prices by tackling labor shortages in the agricultural sector.

The bill would create a new immigration status for migrant farmworkers and their families, which would allow them to eventually apply for permanent residency after a requisite number of hours of farm labor over a decade.

It also aims to revamp the H-2A visa program, which currently allows employers to hire migrant farmworkers for seasonal labor without offering the workers a path to permanent status.

For U.S. farmers, the H-2A program not only fills labor shortages, but is a source of farm workers with legal immigration status. About half of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented.

Fruit and vegetable growers account for much of the H-2A demand. The Labor Department approved a record 317,619 jobs in fiscal 2021 as eligible to be filled by workers with H-2A visas, up from 275,430 in fiscal 2020. The U.S. actually issued 258,000 H-2A visas in fiscal 2021.

Bennet’s bill would allow employers to request some H-2A workers for year-round work. It would also freeze farmworkers’ wages in 2023, and limit how much they could increase over the following decade to stem rising labor costs.

The legislation also seeks to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers, including by mandating that agricultural employers use E-Verify to ensure their employees are authorized to work in the U.S.

Supporters of Bennet’s bill said it represents their collective efforts to address labor shortages that could push farmers out of agriculture or to reduce production while also giving undocumented farmworkers who have worked years helping to feed the U.S. a chance at legal status.

Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union, urged backers of Bennet’s proposal “to work as hard as farmworkers” in making calls and visits to senators to build enough support to get the bill included in a fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill currently being negotiated.

Romero said at the press conference that undocumented workers live with the daily fear of deportation. “If you work to feed America, you deserve the right to stay in America,” Romero said.

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