Grassley, Vilsack, pork industry exec call for immigration reform

By: - July 21, 2021 5:28 pm

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Harold Mendoza via Unsplash)

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Wednesday said Congress needs to overhaul the U.S. immigration system to ease a farm-worker shortage.

But he added GOP members are unlikely to support action until Democrats secure the border.

Grassley spoke to Iowa reporters on a day that featured a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on overhauling a visa system and opening a path to citizenship.

“It’s all dependent upon whether (Democrats) will reverse their position on open borders. I don’t see this administration wanting to reverse their open border policy, and that’s going to make it very hard to get 60 votes in the United States Senate to pass legislation,” Grassley said in response to a question from Iowa Capital Dispatch. 

Grassley notes businesses’ demand for more workers

In prepared comments at the beginning of his media call, Grassley said the hearing was on a seasonal worker visa program, but the worker shortage is year-round in Iowa. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and West Des Moines resident Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producers Council, also spoke.

“Immigration help is difficult to meet the law and to get that help in Iowa,” Grassley said. “I hear from farmers and businesses who just can’t find the people to work.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivered the opening address at the committee hearing. 

“During this pandemic, we’ve all been forced to face the reality that our food supply chain depends to a great extent on the labor of immigrants,” Durbin said.

Durbin said the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act would allow farm workers to do their job “without fear of deportation.”

“When we debate legislation like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, what we’re really debating is the future of America and particularly rural America,” Durbin added.  

At the hearing, Grassley said attempted illegal entries into the United States have risen sharply this year. “It’s clear that we’re still facing an ongoing crisis at the southern border. It’s long past time for this committee to exercise this oversight responsibility.”

‘An unfortunate reality’

“It’s an unfortunate reality that a significant portion of our agricultural workforce is made up of undocumented immigrants,” Grassley said. He added that the federal immigration program, related to farm workers, known as H-2A, “doesn’t work well for employers.”

Grassley said he opposes amnesty for agricultural workers, because a previous program “was riddled with fraud.” Many of the farm workers ended up working elsewhere, he added.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, echoed Grassley’s comment that the Senate should now offer amnesty before securing the border. “We’re doing it a– backwards,” Graham said. 

Graham grills Vilsack

Graham grilled Vilsack — who is in charge of agriculture programs, rather than border security. “Is the southern border secure?” he asked Vilsack.

“I think it’s fair to say that there are ways in which we can improve,” Vilsack responded.

“That is not the question,” Graham responded. “Is it secure.”

When Vilsack tried to elaborate, Graham interrupted him: “If you can’t figure this out … Is that a hard question?”

“It can be a hard question,” Vilsack said. 

“Well, it’s not today,” Graham responded, contending that illegal border crossings are at “an all-time high.” 

Vilsack at one point talked about a farm worker who hadn’t seen his family for 20 years. He was afraid to leave the United States for fear he couldn’t get back in. As many as half of immigrant farm workers could be undocumented, Vilsack said.

“When we talk about family values, I think these farm workers are people who understand and appreciate the essential nature of family values,” Vilsack added. 

Iowan: Pork industry faces ‘critical labor shortage’

Sorensen, the pork producers council president, said the hog industry is “suffering from a critical labor shortage.”

She said visas need to be available for year-round work. “There is no pork season,” she said.

Declines in the populations of rural areas have made it even tougher to find workers.

Said Sorenson; “Now more than ever, we need a dedicated, year-round workforce.” 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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