Senate passes immigration reform bill but passage in the House is uncertain
Though the fate of the bill is dim as it heads for the House of Representatives, an immigration reform bill was passed in the Senate last week on a 68-32 vote.
The bill, S. 744, "The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act" was strongly supported by many farm groups that have said over the years that the current immigration system doesn't help agriculture enough, that current provisions to get guest workers are too cumbersome and that they don't help farmers who need year-round help like dairy producers.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue and if it becomes law, would help all sectors of agriculture and all regions of the country.
"The Senate's passage of a balanced immigration reform bill that includes a fair and workable farm labor provision is welcomed by America's farmers and ranchers," he said, calling the current system "broken."
"America's farmers and ranchers depend on the workers who show up every day to tend crops and raise livestock. The Senate-passed bill will help ensure an adequate supply of farm labor," Stallman added.
One of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter the country, Stallman said. "With less time and resources wasted locking up lettuce harvesters, the focus can shift to where it properly belongs - keeping those with criminal intentions out of our country."
Stallman said it's critical that both chambers pass legislation that can be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee and signed into law.
Agricultural provisions in the bill were part of a compromise agreement with the United Farmworkers Union.
Senators added border security provisions - including hundreds of miles more of fencing between Mexico and the United States as well as 10,000 more border patrol officers - to sweeten the bill for right-wing Republicans and get their support.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) also said he was very pleased by the Senate action on immigration reform.
The bill, he said, includes important provisions that will bring greater stability to the farm workforce and provide a practical, legal means for immigrants to work in agriculture.
It also allows for peace of mind for all parties in agriculture to know that a more easy-to-use and effective system will be enacted, he added. "I look forward to continuing to work with the House of Representatives to pass immigration legislation that achieves many of these same ends."
The bill replaces the H-2A agriculture visa program that many farm employers have complained does not work, and replaced it with what Senators hope will be a more workable system.
The bill mandates E-Verify - electronic status verification done on workers by employers - for the first time and takes steps to clear a backlog that exists today, and eases the process to come to this country legally.
But many political analysts see the future of the immigration bill in the House looking very similar to that of the farm bill.
The Senate passed the food and farm bill several weeks ago - as it also did a year ago - only to see it voted down in the House. (Last year the Republican-controlled House never even brought the farm bill up for a vote.)
The National Milk Producers Federation said the Senate's immigration bill is an improvement for employers and for workers and will help the nation's dairy farmers.
The nation's dairy industry has known for years that the existing employment situation in dairy farming was not sustainable, said Jerry Kozak, President and Chief Executive Officer of NMPF. "The Senate has moved decisively past that admission, and voted to change our labor and immigration laws for the better. Rather than tinker with what wasn't working, this new immigration measure builds something new and much better."
From the standpoint of farm employers, it creates an entirely new visa category for their workers, both current employees, and prospective new employers. Kozak said this new visa system, which will be administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will make it easier for farmers and ranchers to access and use.
"It will also assure a future flow of new workers, so that as the economy evolves and jobs shift between sectors, farmers will have the means to recruit and hire new dairy workers.
"Dairy farmers have been concerned that their current workers might be overlooked by the reform efforts, but the Senate bill addresses that concern, by allowing currently employed undocumented, workers to maintain their jobs. This is a huge benefit, both to workers and their employers," Kozak said.
Regardless of the region of the country, many dairy farmers "face ongoing challenges finding a sufficient number of workers to care for and milk their cows." Kozak said.
"Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation's farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy dairy products on their grocery store shelves."
Kozak was among those last week stressing that even with the Senate's vote on immigration reform, much more work must be done this year on Capitol Hill.
Negotiations continue in the House, which is working on a separate bill. There, broad support for a comprehensive immigration reform measure is less certain.
"The key is to demonstrate to a majority of the House that action is needed. The bill the House will consider is going to be different than this Senate bill, but the critical thing is that a bill addressing the needs of agriculture must be passed by the House. Inaction is not an option," Kozak said.
WISCONSIN SENATORS SPLIT
Wisconsin's Senators differed on the immigration bill with Democrat Tammy Baldwin supporting the bill, while Republican Ron Johnson voted against the bill.
There were 14 GOP Senators who voted with Senate Democrats in support of the bill.
Johnson criticized the bill's costs and entry-exit policies for immigrants. He also cited a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projection that the bill would only reduce illegal immigration by 25 percent.
"My bottom line in deciding whether or not I support this bill has always been that it must solve the problem," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that it will not."
Baldwin said while the bill isn't perfect, "it is important to stand on the side of solutions that have earned broad support across the nation and in the Senate from Democrats and Republicans."
Johnson said he supports immigration reform and a path to legal status for people "whose only crime was to enter the country illegally when they came here to work."
He said he also recognizes that our current immigration laws are not working - "not for American workers, not for employers, and not for immigrants who want to come to America and play by the rules."
Johnson said he had hoped he'd be able to vote for the immigration reform package but he was convinced that this bill would not solve the problem.
He had introduced an amendment during the Senate proceedings to prevent non-citizens from accessing the Earned Income Tax Credit but his amendment did not even get a vote.
He pledged to work with colleagues in the House and potentially in a conference process that would make what he considers the right improvements in the bill.