Richmond Times Dispatch: Column: Farm workforce bill offers historic opportunity

RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, JOHN C. WATKINS and CRAIG REGELBRUGGE

In the face of the partisan gridlock gripping our nation’s capital, we are on the cusp of a historic opportunity to make legislative progress on one of the toughest policy issues of our time. We’re referring to a House bill known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, now scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Modernizing our immigration system is in our national interest. Virtually all of us want to see solutions that restore the rule of law, advance our economic and security interests, respect dignity of people, acknowledge the contributions of new Americans, and reward initiative and hard work.

We have a crisis in our agricultural sector. Our farmers feed the nation, and foreign workers have been the backbone of the farm workforce for nearly a century. Yet the visa program known as H-2A is expensive, bureaucratic and unreliable. It falls far short of meeting the needs of our farmers. Meanwhile, half of the farm workers putting food on our tables each day lack proper work authorization.

This challenge has been with us for years. Yet the last time the House of Representatives really tried to tackle the issue, Ronald Reagan was president. The solution that he signed into law addressed many short-term needs, but failed to deliver lasting solutions.

We know a lot about what it’s going to take to begin to tackle this seemingly intractable problem. For 34 years, John Watkins served in the Virginia General Assembly, 18 of them as a state senator, while also running the family nursery farm. After 2001, immigration policy had become a flash point across the country. Georgia, for instance, hastily enacted a draconian enforcement-only approach that cost the state $181 million in lost agricultural output, according to an analysis by the University of Georgia.

In Virginia, we took a wiser path. Watkins co-chaired a blue ribbon panel on immigration policy that prioritized dialogue over diatribe. Ultimately, we concluded that much about immigration policy simply must be tackled at the federal level.

Which is why we’re so excited to see H.R. 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, advance to the House floor. It enjoys the cosponsorship of 53 Republicans and Democrats who want to solve problems, including Virginia’s Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th. It enjoys the support of more than 300 agricultural organizations around the country, including AmericanHort, our industry’s national group. Scores of faith, labor and worker groups also support it.

While there’s room to further improve aspects of the bill to make it more grower-friendly, it represents a solid, sensible step forward that will help our farmers and economy, contribute to border and interior security, and treat workers and families humanely. By phasing in the use of the E-Verify for agriculture as part of broader reforms, the bill will help to bring integrity to the hiring process, and restore and advance the rule of law.

It’s been more than 30 years since Congress tried to tackle this issue. We’re hopeful that the House will pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act this week, with strong bipartisan support from our Virginia delegation, thus inviting the Senate to roll up its sleeves and get to work. It’s high time to take this important step forward, for Virginia and America.

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