Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asks questions during the Senate Judiciary Committee work session for House Bill 2625 on April 30, 2019.

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asks questions during the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee work session for House Bill 2625 on April 30, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Oregon’s only Republican in Congress broke with his party on a policy issue for the first time this week since taking federal office. Rep. Cliff Bentz split over an immigration bill aimed at farmworker visas and backed by nearly all House Democrats and the Biden administration.

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The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is one of two bills to overhaul the immigration system passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday. HB 1603 establishes a system for agricultural workers to earn temporary status with an eventual option to become a permanent resident, as NPR reported. Spouses and children of workers could also apply for temporary status under the act.

Just 30 out of 211 House Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which seeks to change the existing H2-A visa program.

“The H2-A program, which allows people to come into America legally, is an absolutely essential program because it allows farmers, ranchers, nurseries, dairies and everybody that needs help, to find that help,” Bentz said.

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He represents Oregon’s 2nd District. It’s one of five congressional districts in the state, but it accounts for nearly half of all the state’s total agricultural sales, with more than $2.4 billion worth of products sold in 2017, according to federal data.

Bentz said Oregon’s agricultural employers have long struggled to maintain a stable workforce, calling it an “existential issue,” for some industries.

“Attracting people to these jobs is extremely difficult and it’s becoming a question of whether or not we’ll still be able to compete in the food raising business,” Bentz said.

“We’re losing control of our food supply without this kind of help.”

Bentz voted against the other major piece of immigration legislation the House passed this week, The American Dream and Promise Act, which only nine Republican lawmakers supported. The act would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — otherwise known as “DREAMers,” people with temporary protected status, and beneficiaries of deferred enforced departure. It passed by a vote of 228-197, as NPR reported.

In a statement championing the farm workforce bill, President Biden called for more bipartisanship.

“My Administration is ready to work with leaders on both sides of the aisle to address the needs of our essential workers, bring greater dignity and security to our agricultural sector, and finally enact the long-term solutions we need to create a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system,” Biden wrote.

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