By Gaen Murphree
A key to finally getting federal law changed so immigrants can more easily work on Vermont’s dairy farms is getting farmers and farm advocates here to reach out to their counterparts in Republican-leaning states. That is the analysis of people familiar with the legislative process in Washington, D.C., commenting on the future of the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017, bill S.1034 in the U.S. Senate and an identical bill, H.R.2690, in the U.S. House.
The bills would provide a legal pathway for current agricultural workers — those who are in the country for at least 100 work days over the previous two years — to obtain “blue card” status. Blue cards could also be obtained by a farmworker’s spouse and children.
Blue card farmworkers would be eligible to earn lawful permanent residency (“green card” status) over the next three to five years, under provisions of the bills.
“Like so many dairy issues, the germ of an idea is often born in Vermont and grows outward from there,” said David Carle, a longtime spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Vermont farmers and Vermont dairy organizations have been very aggressive, very adept at reaching out to their counterparts in other states. In Wisconsin, California, the Midwest, the other New England states, the mid-Atlantic states — dairy farms are facing similar issues and desperately hope for remedies like this. So that is the way of building grassroots support that can eventually convince senators in other states to come on board or begin studying the issue in earnest.”
In early May, Leahy partnered with California senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono to introduce the Senate bill. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., co-sponsored the identical House bill on May 25.
“Across our country, including the many dairy farms of Vermont, foreign workers support agriculture and help put food on our tables,” Leahy said at the time of the bill’s introduction. “It is past time we showed our support for them and our understanding of the challenges that farmers and workers face in doing the hard work of dairy farming. Our bill would allow these workers to come out of the shadows and contribute to their farms and community without fear of arrest. The current system has long been broken, and it needs to be fixed.”
At present 40 groups advocating for farmworker and immigrant rights — including the National Farmworkers, the United Farm Workers of America, and Farmworker Justice — support the blue card legislation.
“Migrant Justice supports the bill as a measure that would recognize and advance the rights of immigrant farmworkers,” Migrant Justice spokesperson Will Lambert said. “The law, however, would not replace the need for a comprehensive immigration reform that provides permanent protection for all immigrants in the United States. And regardless of what happens in Washington, we will continue fighting for our human rights here in Vermont.”
The proposed legislation is the latest in a series of efforts to address the labor needs of farms in Vermont and nationwide. Migrant labor, mostly from Mexico and mostly undocumented, has formed the backbone of the Vermont dairy workforce for the past 10 to 15 years. Current immigration law does not allow foreign-born workers to stay over an extended period, but dairy farmers in particular need help on the farm every day. The impact of losing this workforce could be devastating to the state’s dairy industry, ag experts say.
Local farmers are equally clear on the critical importance of migrant labor. “They keep the farms going,” said Bridport dairy farmer Cheryl Connor. “If we didn’t have migrant workers, we wouldn’t have dairy farms.”
In 2013 Leahy was instrumental in getting comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed in the Senate. That legislation, however, was never brought to a vote in the House, though supporters believe it would have had a good chance of passing that year.
Instead, said Carle, immigration issues have languished in a “toxic environment.” “Just the topic of immigration has become somewhat of a so-called third rail on Capitol Hill, where it’s so difficult that it’s hardly ever attempted,” he said.
Given the difficulty of passing comprehensive immigration reform over the past decade-plus, this new bill is intentionally limited in scope.
“In the immediate years after Sen. Leahy pushed the comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate there was a hope that faded over time that the House would do its job and take up that bill and make changes to it or work on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Carle. “But now, since years have gone by and there’s still no action on a comprehensive plan, Sen. Leahy, Sen. Feinstein and others are coming forward with some of the elements of what had passed before because there’s a pressing need to deal with these festering issues like farm labor and dairy labor. This is a new approach to pass parts of what’s needed in the larger scheme of things, but not to tackle the enormous job of comprehensive reform if that just can’t be done.”
Leahy’s Vermont-based ag expert, Tom Berry, also emphasized the sharply focused nature of S.1034.
“The intent of the legislation is to provide an opportunity for those who are already here doing this work and meet the other qualifications to remain in the country,” Berry said. “But it’s not intended to create an opportunity for new agricultural workers to enter the country. It’s meant to be a somewhat circumscribed opportunity.”
By contrast, earlier versions of similar legislation also attempted to replace the federal H-2A visa program with a new agricultural worker visa program for incoming workers.
As introduced, the bill’s sponsors are all Democrats. Close to two months later, the roster of cosponsors still lacks “R” legislators. In the Senate, the bill has gained three new cosponsors: Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tom Udall (N.M.) and Al Franken (Minn.). In the House the legislation now has 42 cosponsors (from an initial 26), but all are still Democrats.
When asked how Addison County residents who approve of the bill could best lend their support, Carle answered: “Well, this is a common problem that we in Vermont have with other policy issues, especially during this new Trump administration. The Vermont delegation is on board with the need for reform and the need for action, so contacting the Vermont delegation is nice but it’s not as critical as reaching out to other states.”
Berry also emphasized the importance of those in Vermont’s ag sector, especially, to reach across state lines. “Part of the larger strategy on this legislation is to get the bill introduced and to expose it to farm groups,” Berry said, noting that “Vermont is often looked to as a leader” on ag issues.
Many ag advocacy organizations have both state and national presences, said Berry, mentioning such organizations as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Milk Producers Federation. Another key group are state directors of agriculture, including Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts.
“Secretary Tebbetts is a member of the National Association of State Departments of Agricultural (NASDA). So having this bill carried forward by Vermonters as they go and mingle with their national organizations hopefully begins to expose members of those organizations from states where they’re represented in Congress by Republicans,” Berry said.
Tebbetts, a supporter of the bills in Washington, said he has already taken the conversation across state lines. “Agriculture, for the most part, is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Talking with many of my counterparts around the Northeast and New York, they are facing the same issues. At a recent meeting in New York, immigration reform was discussed. Those around the table were hoping Congress could come together on a plan.”
Tebbetts continued: “Farmers need stability. They can’t control the weather but they would like some control over their labor issues. If Congress and the president were able to forge a new law it would go a long way of solving an important issue to our farmers.”
Carle observed that 2017 is already a year in which Congress is moving farm issues “to the front burner” as it takes on the work of crafting a new farm bill (the 2014 Farm Bill will expire in September 2018). “It’s easier to get people to focus on things like this when a farm bill’s in the offing,” he said.
Carle and Berry also noted that former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was one of the few Trump nominees that Leahy ultimately supported — in part because of Perdue’s track record in addressing farm labor issues as governor of Georgia and his pledge to work with Congress on this issue.
Nevertheless, both men emphasized that legislating is a “methodical process.” “It has to begin with the introduction of the bill to start the process, start the conversation,” said Carle. “So that’s what they’re doing … It doesn’t happen instantly. Nothing does. And we’ve only recently begun the process in this new Senate.”
Photo courtesy of Open Door Clinic
While foreign-born workers provide much of the labor on Vermont dairy farms, their ability to stay in the country legally is hampered by U.S. immigration law.