As the Senate continues to work through Immigration legislation, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that immigration reform has some big benefits to offer American agricultural producers and their employees.
In a press call, the two Secretaries noted social, economic and public safety aspects of immigration reform.
"The reality is that we have got about 1.1 million people who are working in agriculture today; roughly 700,000 of them are probably not documented properly," Vilsack said. He explained that a lack of immigration policy can result in huge losses in economic opportunity and un-harvested products.
"There just simply are not enough hands in the field," he noted.
Napolitano highlighted the safety aspects of the legislation, noting that it will increase the number of officers that will be stationed at ports of entry, and further regulate the number of immigrants coming into the country.
Napolitano also addressed the e-verify program, a database that checks the employment eligibility of persons applying for a job. Though the program is currently in use, she noted that it agricultural employers will be in the final tier of implementation due to technology concerns.
"We are already working on how to (implement e-verify) with technology that is mobile and fast and can be taken out to the field, recognizing the special circumstances of rural America," she explained.
Napolitano expects that the program will make it easy for employers to comply with U.S. immigration regulations.
Both Secretaries stressed that the combination of e-verify efforts and security reform could add to not only agricultural well-being, but also economic well-being for the larger population.
"This is a pro-growth bill," Vilsack noted. "It's an opportunity for us to reduce the deficit as we bring people out of the shadows and make them tax-paying folks. It's also going to strengthen our social security system. All of these are benefits that will accrue to the country once we can get comprehensive immigration reform."
And according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, famers are on board with proposed reform, focusing specifically on the program changes that allow non-seasonal immigrant employees.
In an AFBF interview, Gene Richard, who works with Pennsylvania mushroom growers, said the changes allow mushroom growers to capitalize on the quality of their crops. He explained the quick perishability of mushroom crops can mean thousands of dollars of profitability out the window in just days.
"We’ve got to stress to our legislators that we can’t wait until tomorrow or the next day to get our products harvested. They have to be harvested on that day when they’re ready to be harvested. So we need some kind of immigration reform to give us a steady workforce," he said.
According to Cody Lyon, AFBF Director of Grassroots and Policy Advocacy, it has been about six years since the last Congressional conversation on immigration reform and more than 20 years since Congress passed an immigration reform bill.
Read more on Agricultural Immigration:
Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Immigration Reform Bill
Agricultural Immigration Issue Unfolds
Long Week Ahead for Immigration Negotiations
All Parties 'Comfortable' With Ag Immigration Proposal
House Reveals Agricultural Guestworker Proposal