WASHINGTON, D.C. – The fresh produce industry desperately needs labor and better certainty for the foreign workers it uses, both documented and undocumented.
But any help in the form of legislation seems impossible, at least this year, due to political pressure from both parties.
At the International Fresh Produce Association’s inaugural Washington Conference, produce industry participants were given four main messages to bring to Representatives and Senators and their staff during visits to Capitol Hill.
One was support for immigration reform. But the number of Congress members who need to be persuaded is actually very few.
The House of Representatives already passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which provides an effective solution for the agriculture labor crisis. It was supported by nearly all Democrats, which control the House, and about 30 Republicans.
Now the Senate must pass the bill, and with the parties split at 50-50, it would take at least 10 Republican Senators to vote for it to get to a filibuster-proof majority.
During a September 27 education session at the conference, speakers conceded that a bill before the mid-term elections in November was impossible, which means they’re working toward a vote between the election in the new Congress in January, in what’s called the “lame duck session.”
“It’s our best strategy, but it’s not a ‘can’t-lose’ strategy,” said Chuck Connor, president, and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Of course, we don’t know which parties will control each side of Congress after the election.
Jen Olson, with the Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus, said the workforce legislation relies on three pillars: providing legal status for workers already in the U.S.; improving guest worker programs; and securing the southern border.
For Republicans, the sticking point is border security, which so far, the Biden administration hasn’t addressed, and really has only gotten some mainstream media attention recently because of Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, sending undocumented migrants to sanctuary cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, and Martha’s Vineyard.
Even during Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s comments at the conference September 28, he blamed politics as the sticking point for reform, but he took no responsibility for his role in it.
Connor said the policy debate on immigration reform hardly gets pushback, that Congress members know there’s a labor problem, and a bill like this would work. It’s the politics that are the problem.
“Many members would rather stay in Congress than fix a problem, and that’s a bipartisan problem,” he said.
James O’Neill, director of outreach for the American Business Immigration Coalition, said there’s one word that always finds a way to stop immigration reform: amnesty – for those already in the country.
“We need to focus on it as an economic issue, a workforce issue,” he said, pointing out that a recent Texas A&M study showed a direct correlation between our current immigration laws and food prices.
Connor said consumers certainly notice rising food prices, and when they get nervous about food access, they demand action.
Olson said a major problem is that the two parties are so unwilling to work together.
“There’s so much distrust across the aisle and frustration,” she said.
Conference attendees are frustrated by the labor problem, but also the inability to do much about it. Talking to House Representatives about immigration is pointless since it already passed in that house.
That leaves the 50 Republican Senators to persuade.
But compromise takes two, and nearly every Republican Senator’s position is to secure the border before considering what to do with the current undocumented workforce. No one in the Biden administration has indicated they will address this.
And it’s unlikely any Democratic senator will stick their neck out.
So, we remain stuck on reform yet again, with a solution looking further away than ever.