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Immigration reform part of US farm bill

America’s economy will improve better if Congress passes the new farm bill, which includes immigration reform, members of the Obama administration are reminding members of Congress during the August recess.

“The sad reality today is that American agriculture is not growing as much, or harvesting as much, as it could — which will limit, over time, farm income as well as jobs connected to exports,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak told the News Tribune in an interview last week.

The farm bill “sets the (national) policy for the (next) five years, and provides certainty to producers,” Vilsak noted.

The Senate included immigration reform in its version of the bill, which “guarantees that there’s going to be a labor force adequate enough to harvest and process whatever it is we are capable of growing.”

However, the House-passed version of the bill doesn’t include immigration reform, and also removed the long-standing food stamp program from the farm bill.

U.S. Rep. Vickie Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, explained on her congressional web site: “Passing a reform minded Farm Bill in 2013 is one of my top legislative priorities. The new bill must provide straightforward reforms that provide a safety net for farmers while still cutting billions of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary aid programs. ...

“These simple reforms will not keep a single calorie out of the mouths of hungry children or families who qualify for the program.”

Vilsak, a former Iowa governor, said the administration disagrees with keeping food stamp assistance out of the farm bill.

“We think the historic relationship between nutrition advocates and farm advocates needs to be maintained,” he explained. “You’ve got fewer and fewer people representing primarily rural areas, and the number of farmers in this country is less than 1 percent of the population — so you’ve got to have a way to attract the support of the other 99 percent.”

That connection is things like food stamp assistance, because all members of Congress represent consumers, Vilsak said.

But why include immigration reform in the farm bill?

Vilsak said a recent White House report “suggests that (in) a state like Missouri, which has 107,000 farming operations, a small percentage of your workforce is, indeed, immigrant labor — but, if you were to see comprehensive immigration reform passed, you would add nearly 1,000 jobs to the Missouri economy.”

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said on his congressional web site that the U.S. government “must not only secure our borders, but also stop encouraging illegal immigration. We must more actively prevent the hiring of illegal labor, while also allowing small businesses and farms access to seasonal labor through legal means.

“In addition to immigrants’ disrupting our workforce, they contribute to our economic instability by draining our health care, education and public-safety systems.”

Vilsak said the immigration reform language does that.

“The bill reflects and understands that concern and, basically, says that before an immigrant guest-worker can be hired to do a job, Americans need to be given the opportunity to have that job — they’re given the right of first-refusal,” he explained. “In some parts of the country, there aren’t Americans able to take these jobs, especially in small towns and rural areas.”

The U.S. Agriculture secretary acknowledged that there likely are “12 million people in America today that are, probably, here without documentation. The reality is that you’ve got to do something with those people.

“And — to the extent that you can make them legitimate and bring them out of the shadows — the Congressional Budget Office (says that) $850 billion of deficit reduction can occur without raising anybody’s taxes or cutting anyone’s services.

“I think every American should be concerned about that.”

Vilsak said Americans “don’t understand what’s at risk, which is the accessibility and affordability of food in this country,” and that they don’t realize the importance agriculture products play in international trade.

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