Bill aiding farmers and workers shows divide among Southwest Florida congressmen

Farm laborers load freshly picked produce. (Photo: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

March 30, 2021 by David Silverberg

If you’re like most Americans, you celebrated National Agriculture Day last Tuesday, March 23, by eating.

However, if you forgot National Agriculture Day entirely you can be forgiven. It is, after all, an artificial holiday, dreamed up in 1973 by a trade association, the Agriculture Council of America, a non-profit 501c3 educational institution backed by some of the biggest corporate names in the US agriculture industry.

The folks who didn’t forget National Agriculture Day were politicians of all stripes who want to remain in the graces of the farming industry and its campaign contributions.

In Southwest Florida, a heavily agricultural area, all three of the region’s congressmen—Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.),  were careful to acknowledge National Agriculture Day on their Twitter feeds, the latter two adding bland bromides to the nation’s farmers.

But when it came to substance, they took very different—and very illuminating—actions.

The action in question was consideration of a bill this month that made fundamental changes to the way agriculture gets done in the United States.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 1603) was a sprawling bill that made fundamental changes to America’s agricultural workforce. It closed legal loopholes while maintaining a strong and healthy—and most of all, legal—labor force.

Among its many provisions, it created a Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status for farmworkers, effectively a guest worker program that was long needed. Farmworkers could apply, be verified and receive legal CAW status good for five and a half years, protecting them and their families from deportation, while weeding out people with criminal pasts. The existing H-2A visa status for foreign workers was improved to provide for better compliance by both workers and employers.

These changes would have a major impact on farmworkers in Southwest Florida, particularly in the heavily agricultural areas of Collier, Lee and Hendry counties. It provides a measure of legality and security for the many migrants from Mexico and Latin America while still assisting the growers.

According to Diaz-Balart, who was involved in formulating the bill, “my colleagues and I spent almost a year negotiating” and working on the bill, “painstakingly working out its provisions.” Diaz-Balart’s 25th district includes wide swaths of farmland across the interior of Florida and includes the town of Immokalee in Collier County, a center of the agricultural workforce population.

Diaz-Balart was one of the original cosponsors of the bill, which included 61 Republicans and Democrats. By the end of Democratic and Republican negotiations, what emerged was a “bipartisan, targeted labor solution [that] our agriculture industry needs. This removes opportunities to work illegally in the U.S., strengthens our border security, and ensures we have a reliable, legal workforce for our farms and ranches,” according to Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-4-Wash.).

Diaz-Balart hailed it as “a significant and necessary step once again toward finally solving the labor crisis facing our nation’s agriculture industry.”

In their interests

The bill’s provisions tightening legal eligibility to work in the United States and boosting enforcement of immigration status by the Department of Homeland Security should have delighted Rep. Byron Donalds.

Prior to his election to Congress last year Donalds represented the 80th Florida House District, which includes Immokalee and the agricultural areas around it, so he should be intimately familiar with its growers and workers and their needs. What is more, for weeks he had been hammering away at President Joe Biden’s administration for its handling of the migrant influx at the Southwest Border. HR 1603 addressed many of the legal problems at the destination end of that influx, reducing crime while maintaining the workforce Southwest Florida growers need.

Rep. Greg Steube too should have welcomed the bill. His sprawling district includes vast swaths of farmland stretching from the coast to Lake Okeechobee and includes Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, plus northern Lehigh Acres in Lee County. Steube, like Donalds, had taken every available opportunity to attack the Biden administration’s handling of cross-border migration.

HR 1603 was fully bipartisan and addressed longstanding concerns of both parties, providing the humane and orderly treatment of farm workers prized by Democrats as well as the legal procedures and immigration security emphasized by Republicans, all while protecting both growers and workers. It was the kind of bipartisan cooperation in the interests of getting something substantive done that people so often say they want to see in Congress. It also had major beneficial implications for Florida.

On March 18, HR 1603 came up for a vote in the House of Representatives. It passed by a vote of 247 to 174. Of that vote, 217 Democrats voted for it as well as 30 Republicans.

Among those Republicans was Diaz-Balart.

And Byron Donalds and Greg Steube…voted against it.

Neither one bothered to issue a statement explaining his vote.

The bill has now gone to the Senate. Given that it is largely flying under the media radar and it’s a strongly bipartisan bill, it has a relatively good chance of passage.

Commentary

Both Donalds and Steube had a chance to benefit their districts, their state and the farms, businesses, workers and people they represent. But that would have involved casting a thoughtful, substantive, well-researched vote. It’s much easier to tweet hysterical attacks on border security, issue anti-immigrant broadsides and oppose any constructive compromises.

And, of course, both tweeted their celebrations of National Agriculture Day.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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