Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo
Although efforts to reach an agreement on federal legislation to address the growing farm labor crisis have not yet succeeded, it is important to understand the recent history of negotiations as we go forward. We made considerable progress, but ultimately there was no “deal” on the table that could possibly have gotten 60 votes in the U.S. Senate and provided an effective and lasting solution for agricultural employers.
I am a staunch supporter of Idaho agriculture, and it is that support that drove my involvement in working with Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) for the majority of the last Congress to come up with a bill to effectively address the farm labor crisis. The need for labor is dire, and seasonal labor costs are set to increase significantly again this year.
The farm labor crisis is driven by two main factors: 1) the lack of an able, willing, qualified and available domestic workforce; and 2) the runaway growth of the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), the federally required minimum wage rate for H-2A farm workers (and workers performing the same jobs as H-2A workers). The flawed methodology of this system has led to the AEWR in Idaho increasing by 40 percent since 2015, from $11.14/hour to $15.68/hour beginning January 1, 2023. Those two issues combined with inflationary pressures that have sent other farm input costs soaring has created a perfect storm for agriculture employers, especially year-round industries like dairy that currently do not have access to the H-2A program.
Negotiating legislation to fix the situation that has lingered and worsened for decades is extraordinarily difficult, especially given the Biden Administration’s failure to secure our borders. However, the need for reform is serious, and Idaho agriculture helped guide the way in the negotiations. My primary objective was to address the intensifying immigration reform needs of Idaho agriculture while crafting legislation that could get the 60+ votes needed to pass the U.S. Senate.
To that end, a bill that was good for Idaho and could attract Republican support from different regions around the country was the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the negotiations reached an impasse when it became clear an agreement that ultimately adhered to conservative immigration principles was not within reach. The main sticking points were over providing a viable pipeline for future farm workers by establishing a robust number of year-round visas and providing adequate employer protections to ensure the changes to federal law would not expose Idaho farm families to excessive litigation. The mandatory E-Verify provision included in the House bill and our negotiations in the Senate has significant ramifications for agriculture employers. It was critical we got these provisions right to avoid putting farm businesses in an untenable situation in a few years once the E-Verify provision was enacted.
Introduction of the Affordable and Secure Food Act prioritized expediency over finding a genuine solution to the agriculture labor shortage. That bill included several items not under discussion in our many months of negotiations, such as the provision that would make Certified Agricultural Workers, who are currently undocumented, eligible for federal benefits like health care tax credits and food purchasing benefits for low-income Americans and families.
Idahoans and people across our country are rightly concerned with the Biden Administration’s lax border policies that have led to an increase in illegal immigration and a dangerous influx of fentanyl and other drugs. Concerns with the situation at the southern border have permeated discussions about changes to immigration law. A solution can be reached if we focus on achieving an outcome intended to meet the long-term needs of the agricultural industry. Continuing to pursue partisan go-it-alone strategies on razor thin margins will not get us there.
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