"Beyond that," he said, "there has to be a workable guest worker program that provides a legal way to replace those workers when they move up to better jobs."
He said he sees a vital role for USDA in helping keep track of workers in the U.S.
"USDA has an existing footprint in every county in America," he said. "The Department of Labor does not have that infrastructure. It only makes sense to use the existing USDA presence to help in whatever way possible to keep track of farm workers."
Farm worker representatives, ag employers also weigh in
Convention attendees also heard from a panel representing varying viewpoints on immigration: Eric Ruark, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform; Craig Regelbrugge, co-Chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and Diana Tellefson Torres, national vice president of the United Farm Workers and executive director of United Farm Workers Foundation.
Ruark said his organization wants to focus on what is best for the American worker.
"The economy is in the dumps and bringing in more low-wage workers is detrimental to the economy," he said.
He disputed claims that there is an actual shortage of American workers to do the jobs that immigrants are routinely hired to do and insisted that the large, profitable companies that dominate agriculture could afford to pay higher wages that would encourage American workers to take the jobs.
Torres said she brought more than 120 farm workers and children of farm workers to Washington to talk about the issue of immigration reform and about the human beings that work to put the food that most Americans eat every day.
She said her concern is making sure that immigration reform does not create a guest worker program that allows growers to bring new workers into the country and undermine the wages and working conditions of workers who are already here and working.
"There are 1.6 million farm workers in this country now, working in conditions that many of us would hope never to have to experience. Our priority is to see that growers recruit and employ the workers that are already here first, before any expansion of the temporary worker program," she said.