Immigration, trade draw heavy focus at Washington Conference

Immigration, trade draw heavy focus at Washington Conference

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Immigration reform, trade and child nutrition reauthorization grabbed the top talking points at the United Fresh Washington Conference’s March on Capitol Hill. 

Meetings with House of Representative lawmakers were Sept. 17 and meetings with members of the U.S. Senate and their staffs will take place Sept. 18.

At a workshop Sept. 17 on efforts to reform farm labor, Carrie Meadows, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., was joined by Corey Brown, legislative assistant for Sen. Thorn Tillis, R-N.C., and Kristy Boswell, policy advisor for the White House. 

United Fresh senior director of government relations John Hollay moderated the session, which examined ongoing rulemaking that would change some H-2A rules and soon-coming immigration reform legislation.

Hollay asked panelists how lawmakers will balance enforcing immigration laws and still find a way to help existing farm workers to a legal status or find a viable way to replace those workers.

Boswell said that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has heard from growers all over the country about their challenges in finding legal workers.

“I think there was even a little bit of shock on how open the industry is about the instability caused by having a largely undocumented workforce,” Boswell said. Being honest about the issue will serve the industry well, she said.

Meadows said the Trump administration’s regulatory changes to the H-2A program are welcomed, though she said Congress still needs to act to enact changes to the program that will make it easier to use.


Reform prospects

Panelists said farm labor reform must be bipartisan because the House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate is controlled by Republicans. Meadows said that farm labor legislative effort should be considered this fall rather than next year.

“It is not impossible (to pass immigration legislation) in an presidential election year, but it is much, much harder,” Meadows said.

Brown said the House must act first on farm labor reform legislation, because in 2013 the Senate passed an immigration reform bill but the House did not move it.

“I think Sen. Tillis is ready to pick it up and lead the charge in the Senate if they are able to get it over the finish line in the House,” Brown said. “Time is ticking but we remain hopeful.”

Meadows and Brown said unified support from agriculture will be needed when the farm labor legislation is introduced.

When they visit with lawmakers, United Fresh leaders must communicate the high stakes of their labor issues, Brown said, noting that some growers are leaving the U.S. and moving their farms to other markets because of lack of labor.

“When you say to your members of Congress say that you’re considering shifting your investments from the U.S. to other countries, that’s a very powerful statement.”

Related stories:

Industry draws lessons from other food lobbyists

United Fresh offers 2020 Smart Pass for industry events

Sonny Perdue to deliver speech at Washington Conference