U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says most Americans don't recognize the importance of farmers and the immigrant labor they rely on to help put food on tables and provide the high quality of life Americans enjoy. Because of the affordability of our food compared to most countries Vilsack notes that American families can spend more of their income on a home, a vacation or college education.
On Wednesday, Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman held a teleconference with the media to address problems with the current immigration system. Vilsack told reporters that he's talked with many farmers and ranchers who worry about the immigration system, being able to verify work authorization papers and finding enough workers for the next harvest.
"Again and again good faith efforts to fix this broken system by leaders from both parties fall prey to the usual Washington political games," Vilsack said. "Recently President Obama called for a constructive and civil debate around the immigration system that would provide the United States and our farmers a reliable, legal workforce."
Vilsack said that a new system would continue the work to secure the borders but would also hold accountable businesses that break the law and provide clear guidance for the vast majority who want to play by the rules.
Stallman says that the Farm Bureau agrees with Vilsack that the immigration system is broken and a comprehensive program is needed now more than ever.
"From an agricultural perspective our piece of comprehensive immigration reform is to be sure we have an adequate agricultural workforce," Stallman said. "About $5 to $9 billion per year of production are dependent on these workers that are here. Most of that is in specialty crops like and fruits and vegetables, but the livestock sector, especially dairy, is also affected."
Stallman says efforts to have a computerized verification program to ascertain a worker's legal status is important, but the problem with that is that under the current system, without an alternative labor supply, it would mean the loss of the workers that are providing that production.
"We've been supporting legislative efforts to reform current guest worker programs," Stallman said. "We need new innovative approaches like programs using biometric identifiers can be provided to workers who want to come across the border to work, to create the greater economic opportunity for themselves, and frankly to do the jobs that American workers will not do. It is absolutely essential for agriculture that in comprehensive immigration reform we address this issue of what happens with this nation's agricultural labor supply."