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GJ Daily Sentinel Editorial: Tipton makes a good call on farm labor

January 14, 2020
In The News

Last month, on the morning of a U.S. House of Representatives vote on the Farm Workers Modernization Act of 2019, the president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association called on Colorado’s congressional representatives to fix a “crippling labor crisis” among agricultural operations in the state by supporting the bill.

Our Rep. Scott Tipton responded with a yes vote, the only Republican congressman in the state to do so. His reward for putting his farming constituency ahead of partisan politics was an opportunistic take-down by Lauren Boebert, a GOP rival campaigning to unseat him.

We’ve long called on Tipton to be more independent-minded and responsive to the unique needs of our sprawling district, much of it productive agricultural land. When he finally showed a little backbone, he got clubbed over the head as a traitor to the Trump agenda. Specifically, Boebert accuses Tipton of aligning with Democrats to support “amnesty” for “illegal farm workers,” as the Sentinel’s Charles Ashby reported in Tuesday’s newspaper.

Boebert, a Rifle restaurateur, has any number of criticisms about Tipton’s record at her disposal. That she’s trying to “out-Trump” him by whipping one aspect of the bill into an amnesty controversy speaks volumes about the state of today’s politics.

We’re hardly Tipton apologists, but we’re disappointed that he would be assailed for supporting a bipartisan bill crafted by worker advocates, farm organizations and agricultural employers. We contend that this kind of collaborative, big-picture representation is what this district needs.

Boebert seems focused on political dogma, not the facts surrounding Colorado’s farm labor crisis. Robert Sakata, the aforementioned president of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, shared his own story to illustrate the extent of the problem. His farm quit growing sweet corn, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli due to a chronic shortage of qualified workers.

“Perfectly good crops were left in the fields because of the lack of help to get them harvested,” he wrote in a Dec. 11 op-ed.

The Farm Workers Modernization Act would provide some relief for agriculture’s labor challenges in two ways. First, existing, experienced farm workers would have the opportunity to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture. Second, the legislation would streamline the farm guest worker program and open it to farmers who currently cannot use the program, such as dairy farmers and producers of year-round crops.

H.R. 5038, which now awaits debate in the U.S. Senate, establishes a new certified agricultural worker status which Homeland Security can grant to workers who have performed at least 1,035 hours of agricultural labor since Nov. 12, 2017, who have been in the nation without proper documents and remained here for all of that time.

If granted, that status is to be valid for 5 1/2 years and can be extended to their spouse and children. Workers with that status and their dependents may later apply for permanent resident status, but only after meeting certain requirements, such as agreeing to remain an agricultural worker for a set number of years.

This may be “amnesty” to Boebert, but providing a pathway to legal residency is not the same as a pathway to citizenship.

The bill also makes several changes to the H-2A program, including requiring employers to guarantee certain minimum work hours and expanding the program to apply to year-around migrants in the dairy industry. The bill would set up a pilot program allowing some migrant workers with H-2A visas to get a special portability status, giving them up to two months to leave one position and seek another with a registered H-2A employer.

Additionally, it permanently establishes the Housing Preservation and Revitalization Program, which provides financial assistance for rural rental housing and off-farm labor housing.

None of this strikes us as a conspiracy to open our borders. It’s simply a first step in addressing a problem that continues to plague farmers across the country. Improvements may be made to the bill as its debated in the Senate — though it’s anybody’s guess when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will begin tackling a backlog of bills awaiting consideration.

This is the fix that Colorado farmers have asked for. If Boebert wants to make political hay out of incentivizing workers to stay in the agricultural field, perhaps she should tell us how she would solve the farm labor problem — especially since she has some skin in the game. Where does the food she sells in her restaurant come from? Deporting farm workers would make it that much harder to field a menu that her customers can afford.