Farmers and immigrant advocates hold out hope for compromise in lame duck session
Updated November 13, 2022 at 7:57 AM ET
NORTH CAROLINA — Apple season is winding down in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and farmer Kenny Barnwell's coolers are filling up with thousands of bushels of Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, and Pink Lady – apples that all had to be picked by hand.
That wouldn't be possible, Barnwell says, without immigrants and migrant workers. That's why Barnwell, who is a fifth-generation apple grower and a registered Republican, has been urging his GOP representatives to open the country's doors to more agricultural workers for years.
"We have finally started to convince a few people of the need for immigration in this county," says Barnwell. "We need to get this done while we've got this narrow window."
That narrow window is the upcoming lame duck session of Congress. Ambitious plans to overhaul the nation's immigration system have failed, yet again. But immigrant advocates say there's a chance that more modest proposals can find bipartisan support now that the heat of election season has passed.
Growers and dairy farmers across the country say the farm labor shortage is getting worse. They're pushing a bill that would expand a temporary work visa program for seasonal workers, allowing some to work in the U.S. year-round. The legislation would also create a pathway to permanent legal status for workers with a demonstrated history of farmwork.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, as it's known, has already passed the House of Representatives twice, with at least 30 Republican votes each time. But it's stalled in the Senate.
"This is becoming the kind of the last hope," says Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho who co-sponsored the farm workforce bill. "This is the best chance we've got of getting it done," he tells NPR.
Republicans leaders say border security must come first
It's not just the farmworkers and the agriculture industry who are pinning their hopes on the lame duck session. A broad range of immigrants and their allies will be urging Congress to act when lawmakers return to Washington this week.
Advocates for Afghan evacuees are urging Congress to pass a bill that would give them permanent legal status. Nearly 600,000 DACA recipients who are in danger of losing their protections are looking for help, too. So are more than 300,000 beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status, who are seeking more permanent protections.
But they will all have to persuade key Republicans, who are more focused on the record number of migrant apprehensions at the southern border.
"I can't imagine a path forward until we find some way to deal with the crisis at the border," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas at a hearing in September. "It's hard for us to make progress on areas even where there is consensus on the topic of immigration while the border is on fire."
Still, some Republicans see a window of opportunity in the lame duck session.
"I would argue that actually passing this bill will help at the border," says Simpson, the co-sponsor of the farm workforce bill, which he argues will discourage illegal immigration.
"I don't think we'll have as many people coming across because these people will be here legally," he says. "They'll be able to come and go."
A new pathway to permanent legal status for farm workers
The bill would create a pathway to permanent legal status for farmworkers who can show they've worked in agriculture for at least eight years. Immigration hardliners don't like that, arguing that it's giving "amnesty" to immigrants who've been working illegally in the U.S. for years, at the expense of native-born workers.
But the bill's supporters say the pathway to a green card is not easy, and it's not quick.
"It's not going to take a job away from a citizen," says Barnwell, who's been growing apples in North Carolina since the 1980s. He now farms about 160 acres, featuring several different varieties of apples and supplying businesses such as Gerber and McDonald's, as well as local farmers markets around North Carolina.
Barnwell says growers in the region have long depended on migrant and immigrant labor to harvest apples and other crops that need to be picked by hand, including peaches and tomatoes.
"You're not going to get a person that's born and raised in the United States to go out into the field and pick apples, or go into that field and harvest tomatoes. It is hard, hard work," Barnwell says.
Barnwell has been trying for decades to convince his GOP representatives to support a bill like this one, he says. "It's not everything we need by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "But it is a good first step about ensuring us a stable workforce."
Some advocates go even further. Rebecca Shi, the executive director of the American Business Immigration Council, argues the bill would help fight inflation by stabilizing the cost of farm labor.
"We go to the grocery store. We see the price of eggs or milk, our poultry meats rising at historic rates," Shi says. "Now inflation's going to keep going up unless we address this at the root cause, which is labor. We need more workers."
Skeptics doubt that the bill would do much to reduce food prices in the near-term, noting that high energy costs are also a major factor.
A narrow window before Congress adjourns for the year
Supporters say the farm workforce bill represents a delicate balance between the interests of farmworkers and their employers. And while that compromise hasn't satisfied everyone in either camp, backers say it has wide-ranging support across both.
The version passed by the House would expand the use of H-2A agricultural visas, which are currently seasonal, to allow some workers to stay in the U.S. year-round. It also mandates the use of the E-Verify system to confirm that all agriculture workers are eligible to work legally.
The bill's sponsors in the Senate are expected to release their version soon. If it doesn't pass before the end of the year, its supporters will have to start over again in the next Congress, when Republicans could have a narrow majority in the House.
Even the bill's GOP co-sponsor Mike Simpson believes that would be difficult.
"It will be harder in a Republican conference to get this bill through," Simpson says. "They'll want to make too many changes."
It won't be easy in the lame duck session, either.
"There are some quiet negotiations. There are member-level talks happening, which is critical to moving anything in immigration," says Kristie De Peña, an expert on immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
De Peña rated the chances of the bill passing before the end of the year as "slim" – but she didn't rule it out, either. "I wouldn't put them at zero," she says.
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