Livestock farmers push for immigration bill

Livestock farmers are pushing for the Senate to deliver a long-awaited immigration bill over the lame-duck session to modernize the agricultural visa system. 

The Senate is poised to consider at least one immigration-related bill between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and there are two House-passed bills that could get a vote. 

Democratic leaders have put their weight behind a bill to protect “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors — while a broad swath of the agricultural industry is pushing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA). 

The livestock farmers and their supporters argue that the existing system simply doesn’t address their needs. Livestock businesses require year-round workers who have experience with animals — all current agricultural visas are exclusively seasonal.

“I honestly don’t know exactly how we ended up being overlooked. I think largely at the time the industry looked very different than it looks today. And it was predominantly a family workforce. And so there wasn’t there wasn’t the foreign-born workforce in dairy that you had in seasonal agriculture when the pieces were originally written,” said Rick Naerebout, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. 

Rebecca Eifert Joniskan, president of the Indiana State Poultry Association, said poultry farmers will make do with or without reform as they have in the past, but the visa impasse just adds to a series of challenges faced by poultry farmers. 

Joniskan said poultry is facing challenges finding qualified, willing and legally available labor at a time when the industry also faces high fuel and feed prices. On top of that, a wave of avian influenza is affecting 46 states, forcing some farmers to euthanize entire flocks. 

The ebb and flow of some of these issues is baked into the cake for the industry, but farmers are losing patience with the added pressure of preventable labor shortages. 

“This conversation is starting to get to a more apolitical situation. Industry needs this,” Joniskan said. 

The FWMA has already passed the House, and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) are leading the effort to pass a Senate version. 

In essence, the FWMA provides a path to citizenship for farmworkers who’ve been in the country for more than a decade, but employers would face more stringent hiring protections to prevent more unauthorized foreign workers from joining the workforce. 

While the immigration side of the deal is generally agreed to, the FWMA also includes a proposed expansion of labor protections under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA).

Those labor provisions are causing friction between the American Farm Bureau Federation and the state chapters of the Farm Bureau. 

The American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC), a bipartisan pro-immigration reform group, released a study in August saying only 0.006 percent of farmers subject to the MSPA have faced lawsuits on the matter over the past 2 1/2 years.

Still, the viability of the FWMA, whether it’s presented as standalone legislation or within a must-pass bill, could come down to basic political math: Will 10 Republicans join Senate Democrats to pass an immigration bill in the lame-duck session?

The bill’s proponents believe the FWMA’s economic benefits could put it over the top.

“The Senate needs to pass their version of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) immediately. Majority of agriculture supports it. It caps expenses for the farmers, lowers food prices hammering American consumers and makes sure that we have a legal and reliable workforce for the agriculture industry,” ABIC Executive Director Rebecca Shi said.