Immigration, Labor Reform Top Priority at 2018 Louisiana Farm Bureau Annual Meeting

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau News

NEW ORLEANS, La.—As hundreds of farm families gathered for the 2018 Convention of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, two major pieces of legislation that affect them moved through Congress and both were hot topics of conversation.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill, while defeating the latest round of immigration reform.  The latter bill was the subject of many speakers during the Labor and Environmental Conference on Friday. 
Paul Schlagel, American Farm Bureau Federation’s managing director of public policy and economics, was one of those speakers.  He said without some reform, the current problems with the H-2A guest worker program would be disastrous for America’s farmers.

“H-2A is growing very fast, with more than 200,000 workers,” Schlagel said.  “if we don’t get provisions that are more responsive to growers—more flexible, more economic, fewer burdensome costs and other things—we’re going to hit a wall.”

Randy Bracy, chair of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Labor and Environmental Advisory Committee, said he got his hopes up when he heard the House was considering immigration reform. 
“It was a good bill for labor, for agriculture, but when it fell, a lot of hopes went out the window,” Bracy said.  “It was probably one of our best chances to get through Congress.  With this being an election year, it’s going to be tough to get any kind of real, serious changes in labor.  It’s not a real good picture for us right now.”

Immigration reform was the initial reason the Farm Bill failed in early June.  The more conservative wing of the House wanted to see the immigration bill moved to the House floor.  Even when it did, the Farm Bill barely passed by a vote of 213-211.  The immigration bill failed by a vote of 193-231.  

Earlier in the summer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, cancelled the Senate’s August recess in order to provide more time for considering legislation before the November elections.  Schlagel said this offers some hope in getting at least some agriculture provisions for migrant labor passed this year.

“We got word last night that some of the ag provisions are being worked into another legislative vehicle,” he said.  “We’re mildly encouraged—we’re still in the game and still pressing.”

Some other good news came from Anne Idsal, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region VI administrator, which includes Louisiana, who struck a new tone in working with Farm Bureau and the state’s farmers and ranchers.

“We want to make sure in everything we do from a federal standpoint and a regional standpoint provides the Louisiana Farm Bureau and ag sectors across the board the opportunity to weigh in,” Idsal said.  “If it’s best practices, things the they’ve done that they ought to be given credit for, challenges that they’re facing where perhaps EPA can be of assistance—we are encouraging that level of heightened engagement and cooperation.”

Federal authorities also delivered some good news in migrant labor housing.  Mirna Reyes-Bible, USDA’s program director for farm labor housing, said H2-A farm workers are now eligible to be housed in rural development housing.  While said housing must still comply with federal regulatory standards, the USDA would be both providing more housing, but open it up to more guest workers. 

“We had a language change that opened up the program not just to those eligible to permanent residents, but anyone who enters the United States legally, including those in H2-A guest worker program,” Reyes-Bible said.  “This will be great for Louisiana, because basically 90-95 percent of the farm workers are H2-A workers.”