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News >  Agriculture

Dan Newhouse, Northwest farmers make last-ditch push for farm workforce bill whose fate lies with Crapo, Senate Republicans

Rep. Dan Newhouse speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16 in support of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill sponsored by the Republican from Sunnyside, Washington.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Dan Newhouse speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16 in support of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill sponsored by the Republican from Sunnyside, Washington. (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – With barely a month left for the 117th Congress to finish its work, a House lawmaker from Central Washington is urging his fellow Republicans in the Senate to get behind bipartisan legislation aimed at giving the U.S. agriculture industry a legal workforce while fixing part of the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, argues his bill would help reduce the number of migrants who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border, where there was a record number of Border Patrol arrests in the last fiscal year, by expanding legal pathways for foreign workers while cracking down on the use of counterfeit documents. In the Senate, where Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho is the lead GOP negotiator on the bill, the situation at the border is complicating efforts to find the 10 Republican votes needed to pass it.

“It’s fair for the farmers, for the communities we all live in and, just as importantly, for the farmworkers themselves,” Newhouse said at a news conference in front of the Capitol on Nov. 16. “We can accomplish all these things and help secure our border by passing this legislation.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the House in March 2021 with the support of 30 Republicans, is built on three pillars: legal status for farmworkers who are already in the country, a streamlined visa program to let more temporary migrant workers enter the country legally and tougher enforcement measures for anyone who violates the law.

The bill would let unauthorized farmworkers earn legal status – along with their spouses and children – following a background check. After working at least eight years in agriculture and paying a $1,000 fine, they could earn permanent resident status, often called a “green card,” and later become eligible for citizenship.

José Martínez, a 66-year-old farmworker from Sunnyside who visited the Capitol as part of a lobbying trip organized by the United Farm Workers labor union, said Nov. 17 the bill would especially benefit migrant workers who could finally visit their families abroad and return to work legally in the United States.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Martínez has lived in Washington state since 1988 and got his green card after marrying a U.S. citizen. Reforming the law would reduce the number who cross the border illegally, he said in Spanish, and the recent increase in arrests at the border should be reason for lawmakers to act.

The legislation would reform a temporary work visa program known as H-2A, streamlining a clunky application process, while standardizing wages earned by farmworkers on H-2A visas. The visas – which were designed for short-term, seasonal work – would also be made available to industries like dairy that operate year-round and now rely overwhelmingly on unauthorized immigrant labor.

“Idaho is the third-largest dairy state in the United States,” Bob Naerebout, government affairs director at the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said at the Nov. 16 news conference. “We have roughly 45,000 employees on our dairies. Ninety percent of our employees are foreign-born, but we do not qualify for any visa program, so you can figure out what the status of our employees is.”

About half of U.S. farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while only around 10% are foreign laborers who enter the country on H-2A visas. Farmers and ranchers say the H-2A process – which predates the modern internet – is too cumbersome and forces them to hire immigrants without legal status when they can’t find enough Americans willing to do the hard work of producing the nation’s food supply.

Congress hasn’t passed a major immigration reform bill since 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan gave legal status to some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants while tightening border enforcement and requiring employers to check their employees’ legal status. That requirement, however, created a cottage industry of counterfeit documents, while the law prohibits employers from questioning the validity of documents that “appear to be genuine.”

In response to that problem, in 2004 Congress created a system known as E-Verify to check employment documents. But employers and civil liberties groups have resisted using it over concerns about its accuracy and the largely unspoken understanding that cracking down on unauthorized workers without giving them a pathway to work legally would decimate the U.S. economy and food supply. For that reason, Newhouse frames his bill as essential to U.S. food security and, by extension, national security.

Only 13.5% of employers used E-Verify as of 2018, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data, and only eight states mandate its use for all employers. Idaho requires E-Verify only for government agencies and contractors, while Washington and Oregon have a handful of local mandates.

The final pillar of Newhouse’s bill aims to change that, mandating E-Verify nationwide for agricultural jobs while guaranteeing due process for workers who are wrongfully rejected by the system.

The legislation, which Newhouse first introduced in 2019 along with Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, has drawn criticism from both the left and right. Right-wing immigration hardliners decry the legalization process it would create as “amnesty,” while Democrat Doug White, who lost to Newhouse in the midterm elections, called the same provision “modern-day indentured servitude.”

Lorena Avalos, who also came to D.C. from Sunnyside as part of the UFW lobbying trip, said she has worked in agriculture for 12 of the 22 years she has spent in the United States and would be happy to keep working to earn legal status through the process laid out by Newhouse’s bill.

Avalos, 46, said she doesn’t have legal status but has three children who are protected from deportation under a program established by the Obama administration in 2012. Those “Dreamers” have been the subject of broader immigration reform efforts in Congress. Having a chance to earn legal status, she said, would let her family defend their rights and live in the country without fear.

If Newhouse’s bill doesn’t pass, Avalos said in Spanish, “We’ll stay in the shadows.”

Lawmakers have tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform several times since the 1986 law, most recently in 2013, when Republicans including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida helped shepherd a bill through the Senate before it died amid GOP opposition in the House.

Yet those two Republicans reflect a change in their party’s attitude toward immigration reform since former President Donald Trump came to power in 2016, with Rubio telling Politico on Nov. 20 that trying to pass an immigration bill before the end of 2022 is “crazy.”

“There’s no way you’re going to get anybody on our side to do an immigration bill with a broken border,” Graham told Politico.

But with Republicans set to take over the House majority when a new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, Newhouse knows the odds of his bill becoming law in the next two years would likely go from slim to none.

“Politically, the reality is things will change next year and complicate moving an immigration bill,” Newhouse said after the Nov. 16 news conference.

“This truly is a constructive way, a positive way, of addressing the crisis we have at the border, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything until that’s fixed,’ ” he added. “I think it would be very unfortunate if we lost that opportunity.”

Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate – and will retain it in the next Congress – but the filibuster rule means at least 10 GOP senators would need to back the bill before it could pass. Crapo, responding to calls from the Idaho Farm Bureau and other groups in the Gem State, took on the delicate task of negotiating with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, to make changes to the House bill that would satisfy Republicans without losing support from Democrats.

In a March 2021 column in the Idaho Press, the senator expressed cautious support for the legislation, which he called “unrelated to the current border crisis.”

“Immigration reforms are long past due,” Crapo wrote, “and I look forward to the work ahead to fix this part of our broken system for the betterment of Idaho agriculture and the Idahoans and other consumers who rely on its resiliency.”

Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who represents most of Idaho’s dairy industry in the eastern part of the state, is another leading advocate of the bill and has encouraged GOP senators to back it, leading Naerebout to say Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to support bipartisan immigration reform.

“I mean, Idaho, we brag about who’s the reddest state,” Naerebout said in the news conference. “We’re Idaho and we’ve had two Republicans step up, and they’ve touched the third rail of politics, called immigration, … so Republicans can be engaged in this and they can survive.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane also voted for the bill in 2021, as did her fellow GOP Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of southwest Washington and Cliff Bentz of Eastern Oregon.

Yet despite that support for the bill from House Republicans, most GOP lawmakers seem to have little appetite for immigration reform while the southern border remains a focus of right-wing media outlets.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, supported the bill when it first passed the House in 2019 before changing his position two years later, citing the increase in unlawful border crossings.

Some farmers hoped Crapo would ramp up negotiations with Bennet after the election, when the 71-year-old Idaho senator, first elected in 1998, easily won a fifth term in office.

Shay Myers, who grows onions and other produce along the Oregon-Idaho border, expressed frustration at the Nov. 16 news conference that Crapo and Bennet hadn’t yet introduced a Senate version of the bill after moderates in both parties had a strong showing in the midterms.

“I’m here because Sen. Crapo, my senator in Idaho, promised to file this bill after the elections,” Myers said. “The crazies lost. He has his place secured. Where’s the bill? I’m tired of excuses. We’ve had excuses for 36 years.”

In a statement, Crapo said he remains committed to working with Bennet “to reach an agreement to help Idaho’s agriculture industry meet its labor needs” and their work “will continue until we reach a viable solution that can pass the Senate.”

A spokeswoman for Bennet, Rachel Skaar, confirmed in a statement that the two continue to work toward introducing a Senate version of the bill.

Congress will return to the Capitol on Monday from its Thanksgiving break, with the Senate scheduled to be in session for just 18 days before the end of the year.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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