It is time for the federal government to act. It’s not as if Congress doesn’t know there is a need, and it’s not as if there isn’t a solution. After 15 years of effort and conflict over immigration reform, labor-intensive agricultural producers in the United States still face harvest without assurance of an adequate work force. An estimated 70 percent of their laborers use false employment documents, and fewer of these workers are available as the federal government increases border enforcement and I-9 audits; state and local governments pass E-Verify laws; drug gangs try to control illegal border crossings; Congress pushes towards a federal E-Verify requirement; and the domestic work force continues to decline seasonal fieldwork jobs. The need is clear, and the solutions are apparent: agriculture needs its existing work force legalized as a bridge to a new, long-term guest-worker program.

But what about the bigger U.S. immigration reform picture? It’s not just about agriculture, but the entire U.S. economy. It’s about social costs, unemployment, law enforcement, social justice, and politics—lots of politics.

There are some angry, vocal people out there, and many of them use illegal immigration as a scapegoat for America’s troubles. The atmosphere has become so poisoned that public office holders and candidates have felt safe making inappropriate statements about undocumented workers, even to the point of condoning violence. And the “enforcement-only” fervor has pushed comprehensive immigration reform, a concept that got 53 votes in the Senate in 2007, to the “back burner.”

Enforcement only won’t work

That’s unfortunate, because it will not work and it draws legislators’ attention from legislation that will. Instead, a comprehensive immigration bill should be moving forward in Congress, one that provides increased enforcement and a workable E-Verify system. But, to work, it must also provide legalization for many of the undocumented workers already contributing to our work force. And it should fix the inequities in current immigration law as well as the onerous problems with the current H-2A guest-worker program.

The adoption of E-Verify would significantly lower the use of false documents (the weakest point in current immigration law) and change the pattern of illegal immigration. No longer would it be easy just to cross the border, buy documents, and get a job. But the United States also needs to protect and feed its economy. We need to make it easier for people to get work authorization when jobs are open and Americans aren’t taking them. Currently, we make it impossible. Most agricultural workers who are undocumented are unable to qualify for any kind of legal status, and there is no way for them to become qualified.

Our country also needs to deal fairly with the millions of people who have lived and worked here illegally, who have become a part of our economy, created wealth for our country, and are part of our culture. Only the most extreme argue that we should round up 12 million people and deport them, but even less strident immigration enforcement advocates want to make life difficult enough for them that they leave on their own.

Certainly, we should find and deport the illegal immigrants who are criminals and deadbeats, but the people who have worked, paid taxes, and grown our economy should at least be given an opportunity to pay a ­reasonable penalty and then qualify for legal status.

And amnesty isn’t just a Latino, proimmigration stance either. The Wall Street Journal, a bellwether of business community thought, has been particularly strong in voicing the opinion that legalization for some illegal aliens makes sense for the country’s economic health: “… Immigration enhances American growth…. The best way to reduce illegal immigration is for the ­government to provide wider avenues for legal ­immigration.” The big business-big city mayor coalition, The Partnership for a New American Economy, represented by none other than Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg, and J.W. Marriott, struck just the right tone, as they called for Congress to pass laws that will “Make it harder to immigrate illegally and easier to immigrate legally.”

While agriculture favors a comprehensive solution, we are forced to deal with political reality and take measures to protect our interests against “enforcement-only” bills. Comprehensive immigration reform is not in play, but an E-Verify bill (H.R.2885) was passed out of committee in late September and was under consideration as this column was being written. Mandatory E-Verify without a new and better agricultural guest worker program will result in the export of U.S. farm production and U.S. jobs. That sounds ominous—only because it is. The House Judiciary Committee must thoroughly examine agriculture’s needs and pass a solution to prevent the decimation of the agricultural work force by mandatory E-Verify.

H-2A is inflexible

Proposed solutions for agricultural employers include H.R.2847, the American Specialty Agriculture Act, which would substantially reform the existing H-2A program; and H.R. 2995, the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act, which is a more flexible and market-oriented program, not based on the existing H-2A structure. Some of the proposed H-2A reforms would be beneficial for current program users. However, the H-2A program structure is too inflexible and bureaucratic to meet the needs of the entire industry. An in-depth research project by the National Council of Agricultural Employers has exposed the flaws of the program and should be read by all growers. A summary of an NCAE survey of program users can be found at files/ALRP2011_brochure.pdf.

The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform summarized the needs of the agriculture industry well: “A true solution to the problem at hand will provide work authorization for the experienced farm labor force, visas of adequate length to meet the diverse needs of agriculture, and a workable program for the future. With such reforms, agriculture will be in a position to fully support phased-in implementation of E-Verify.”

The need is clear, and the solutions are apparent. Agriculture needs its existing work force legalized as a bridge to a new, long-term guest-worker program. It is better to include such changes within a comprehensive bill so that enforcement, E-Verify, legalization, and guest worker programs are changed together, in balance. Until then, agriculture must work to ensure that a standalone E-Verify bill includes guest-worker solutions that will work well for our large and diverse industry.