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Agriculture secretary, Idaho-Oregon farmer urge Senate panel to fix ‘broken’ immigration system

In a video posted on LinkedIn, Owyhee Produce CEO Shay Myers shows a 35-acre field of asparagus he couldn’t harvest in time after visas for the migrant farm workers he was counting on were delayed. Myers testified Wednesday to a Senate panel about immigration for agricultural workers.  (Screenshot from LinkedIn)

WASHINGTON – A farmer who grows vegetables in Idaho and Oregon testified alongside the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a Senate hearing Wednesday, urging senators to pass a bill championed by Northwest lawmakers to fix an immigration system Republicans and Democrats agree is broken and threatens the nation’s food supply.

Shay Myers, CEO of Owyhee Produce, a family farm with fields on both sides of the Snake River in the Treasure Valley, went viral earlier this year when he posted a video on TikTok that got millions of views and drew attention to the shortcomings of a guest worker visa program little known outside the agriculture industry. In the video, Myers stood in a 35-acre field of asparagus and invited viewers to help themselves to the crop he couldn’t harvest because the visas he had requested for immigrant workers had been delayed by months.

The U.S. agriculture industry relies overwhelmingly on immigrant labor, but only about 10% of farm workers come to the U.S. through the H-2A visa program Myers uses. The majority of farm workers – estimates vary from 50% to 75% – are unauthorized immigrants who rely on a cottage industry of counterfeit documents that sprang up after Congress last overhauled the immigration system more than three decades ago.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” Myers told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is charged with immigration issues. “The last 36 years of policies and political failures have led us here. Now is the time to act. It’s not ethical, it’s not economically viable, and it’s not safe to kick this can down the road yet again.”

Myers echoed the testimony of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who headed USDA throughout the Obama administration and was confirmed to lead the agency again with wide bipartisan support. Vilsack called on the senators to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that passed the House in March with the support of nearly every Northwest Republican.

Vilsack emphasized that unauthorized workers have been an essential part of communities and the nation’s agriculture industry for generations, pointing to a USDA survey that found immigrant farm workers have been in the country an average of 18 years.

“They come up here to make a better living and send resources back to their families, with the understanding that they may never, ever see them again,” he said. “Why is that? Well, it’s in part because we have an uncertain and – I think we can argue – a broken immigration system.”

Members of both parties told Vilsack they agreed that the system is broken, including Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, and Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

The new legislation, while not the “comprehensive immigration reform” Congress has struggled to pass for decades, would represent the biggest overhaul to the U.S. immigration system since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, creating the H-2A program.

That bill gave legal status to some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants, including more than a million farm workers, in exchange for enforcement measures meant to stem illegal immigration. Instead, the 1986 law created a system in which foreign workers have few opportunities to enter the country legally despite huge demand for labor, while employers have few options for hiring authorized laborers and are required by law to accept potentially counterfeit immigration documents at face value.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act aims to correct those problems in a three-pronged approach. It would streamline and expand the H-2A visa program to make it easier for employers to bring guest workers into the country legally, let unauthorized workers earn legal status by paying a $1,000 fine and working at least eight years in agriculture, and ensure that employers and workers follow the new rules by mandating stricter enforcement measures.

The bill drew wide support in the House, especially from lawmakers who represent heavily agricultural districts, with 30 Republicans joining 217 Democrats to pass the bill spearheaded by Rep. Dan Newhouse, a central Washington Republican, along with California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

But GOP support for the bill has so far been harder to come by in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would be needed to join the entire Democratic caucus to pass it. While Newhouse has argued passing the bill could reduce illegal immigration, many of his GOP colleagues say they won’t support any path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants until the Biden administration cracks down on the influx of migrants at the southern border. Federal officials have logged more than 1 million apprehensions in the fiscal year that started last October, the first time border crossings have reached that level since 2006.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who helped lead Congress’s last big push for immigration reform in 2013, summed up this attitude in a testy exchange with Vilsack.

“You don’t give amnesty and hope people won’t keep coming,” Graham said. “You secure the border, then you provide legal status. We’re doing it ass backwards.”

Other Republicans on the panel, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, used their five-minute question periods to rail against the White House’s approach to the border. The administration has sought to discourage illegal border crossings while undoing the harsh policies of the Trump administration that slowed immigration but left children separated from their parents and created squalid refugee camps south of the border.

Despite the heated and high-profile hearing, the fate of the farm worker bill depends largely on two senators who aren’t part of the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has taken on the task of negotiating a Senate version of the bill with Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat.

“This is an issue that has been in front of Congress for the last 20 years or more,” Crapo said in a June 16 interview. “Its resolution would significantly help the situation at the border, because it would reduce the pressure for illegal entry into the country. And I believe if you look at food security in our country … we’re facing a very serious threat. It’s literally at a point where this is a national security issue.”

Along with Myers and Vilsack, the committee heard testimony from an Illinois dairywoman, the former head of the United Farm Workers , the president of the National Pork Producers Council and a former assistant secretary of the Labor Department. Talks between Crapo and Bennet over a compromise bill are ongoing, with uncertain odds of the two sides settling on legislation at least 10 Republicans can support.