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With faint chances for passage but sure promise for passion, immigration and farm labor legislation will again be debated by Congress in June.

House leadership has committed to bringing immigration legislation to the floor in mid- to late June, but fresh produce industry lobbyists said getting any immigration reform or enforcement legislation through Congress with President Trump’s signature during an election year will be an uphill battle.

With at least one and possibly four immigration bills up for possible votes in June, Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort senior vice president of industry advocacy and research, said there is as much uncertainty as ever with the immigration debate on Capitol Hill. 

It is difficult to be optimistic about ag farm labor legislative reform efforts given the political environment, Regelbrugge said.

There appear to be just 96 co-sponsors of House Judiciary Chairman’s Bob Goodlatte’s Securing America’s Future bill, said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. 

That means the legislation from the Virginia Republican, which includes language that would replace the H-2A program with an H-2C program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, isn’t likely to get votes to pass if it is brought to the House floor. 

Some produce industry groups, including Western Growers, have opposed Goodlatte’s guest worker bill because it doesn’t account for the existing undocumented workforce and has a cap on the number of guest worker visas it would issue.

If the leadership brought the Goodlatte bill to the floor and it failed to get the 218 needed to pass, Marsh said that could potentially also end the debate on other immigration proposals.

However, there are efforts by Democrats and some Republicans to force a vote on U.S. policy around asylum seekers and child immigrants.

According to media reports, about 213 House lawmakers out of 218 required have signed on to a discharge petition that would force votes on several legislative fixes in the House for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects many young undocumented immigrants. 

If the discharge petition reaches the needed 218, a vote would likely happen by the end of June, media reports indicate.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., represents a district with a substantial Hispanic population and has been pushing for a vote on the DACA program.

Marsh said there is tension on immigration issues between House leadership, the conservative Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans.


Goodlatte good enough?

Agriculture interests are focused on the acceptability of the agriculture provisions of Goodlatte’s bill, Regelbrugge said.

One big concern is how the bill treats the eight million or so undocumented workers in the U.S., many of whom work in agriculture and specialty crop industries.

Provisions of Goodlatte’s bill would also cut legal immigration by a third, and Regelbrugge said he has reservations about the wisdom of that approach in an era where baby boomers are leaving the workforce in increasing numbers.

Regelbrugge said for any legislation to succeed, it will likely have to be stripped down, possibly a DACA fix, some border security elements and perhaps some enforcement language, though not mandatory E-verify.

Industry lobbyists are pushing for ag worker provisions to be a part of any package that moves, but that might be hard to pull off, he said.


H-2A fix

Marsh said the Trump administration’s vow to streamline the H-2A program is drawing support from agricultural employers. 

“Members are really excited about getting some administrative fixes,” Marsh said.

The administration is expected to publish notice of proposed rulemaking to gather input and later issue a proposed rule.

The rulemaking process will be an opportunity for growers and others to have a voice on their needs for the public record in an effort to make common sense changes to the H-2A program, Marsh said.

Regelbrugge also said the administration’s pledge to streamline the H-2A program has promise, possibly by making it less costly and more efficient.

However, the administrative fixes may not be able to change how temporary and seasonal workers are defined and whether guest workers could be used for year-round work.

Still, Regelbrugge said he was optimistic that Trump administration efforts to make the program more usable for growers could reap benefits by the 2020 growing season.

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