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Colorado Sen. Bennet introduces farm immigration bill without Sen. Crapo

Workers wearing hats are handed masks from cardboard boxes

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) introduced an agricultural immigration reform bill Thursday morning without his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)

The two had been leading efforts to introduce a version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives twice, and there had been pressure to get it passed before lawmakers head home for the holidays. But they weren’t able to reach an agreement.

Bennet introduced the Affordable and Secure Food Act on Thursday. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for certain immigrant agricultural workers and would also reform aspects of the H-2A temporary visa program.

At a news conference, he said it would reduce labor costs for farmers, lower food prices for consumers and bring certainty to undocumented farm workers. But without Crapo currently on board, it faces an uphill battle to gain enough Republican support.

The lame-duck session before the GOP takes control of the House in January was thought to be the best chance for the immigration reform bill to pass. Crapo and Bennet were both up for reelection in November.

“With the challenges going on at the border today, the word immigration is almost toxic,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a co-sponsor of the House bill, in an interview this August.

“We’re hopeful that after the election, during the lame-duck session, they can take that up and get it passed. Because I think an overwhelming majority on both sides of the aisle want to get this done and realize how important it is for agriculture in this country.”

During a recent virtual forum hosted by the American Business Immigration Coalition, Simpson urged viewers to reach out to Crapo.

“I believe if it’s not done by the end of this session, it won’t get done for the next two years,” he said.

But on Wednesday, Crapo’s team said the negotiators had reached a “mutual impasse in moving forward with the bill.”

“Senator Crapo and Senator Bennet were not able to reach a bipartisan agreement on critical employer-related components of the bill, despite their best efforts,” said Marissa Morrison, Crapo’s press secretary, in an emailed statement.

Antonio De Loera-Brust, the communications director for the United Farm Workers labor union, disagreed with that characterization.

“It’s clear that changes were made in Crapo’s direction, and yet, he walked away,” he said.

He said those adjustments from the House to the Senate version of the bill include changes to the way H-2A workers’ wages are calculated that save farmers money and an increase in the number of year-round visas available.

Bill would open up temporary agricultural visas to year-round job for the first time

Though some agriculture and business groups are backing Bennet’s version of the bill – like the American Business Immigration Coalition and the National Milk Producers Federation -- others like the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation don’t support it as it’s currently written. The organization believes it would give H-2A visa workers more leeway to sue their employers.

The number of year-round visas is another sticking point.

Under the bill, the temporary H-2A visa program would open up to year-round industries for the first time. But the Farm Bureau said the number of those visas included – 26,000 for the first three years -- is too small.

Half are reserved for the dairy industry, which largely relies on an undocumented workforce in absence of a visa program it can use to hire workers. The other half would be split among other year-round industries such as pork and poultry production.

Braden Jensen, the governmental affairs representative at Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said at the same time, the bill would require employers to use an electronic system to verify that their employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

“If we’re going to require E-verify to be utilized,” Jensen said, “we just need to make sure our labor needs can be met by our domestic workforce or by our guestworker programs.”

Immigrant rights groups say raising the cap on year-round visas could hurt current farmworkers.

“If we’re going to solve this problem, it’s got to be bipartisan”

Another concern among some Republicans has been that this bill would grant “amnesty” to agricultural workers.

However, it would require them to work in the agriculture sector in the U.S. for many years, pass a background check and reside under “certified agricultural worker” status for years before they could apply for a green card.

“It’s definitely not instant citizenship or anything like that,” De Loera-Brust of United Farm Workers said. “What it is is ensuring that the workers who have been here, been working, who have kept us fed during the pandemic, and all these years, are able to continue to live and work here with some basic stability."

De Loera-Brust has been with farmworkers from around the country in D.C. this week, including some from Idaho, to urge senators to take up the bill before the end of the lame-duck session. Now, the organization is looking for Republicans to fill Crapo’s role.

Rick Naerebout, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which is supportive of the current bill, said more compromises will be needed to get there.

“If we’re going to solve this problem, it’s got to be bipartisan,” he said.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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