Officials say fixing broken immigration system safeguards nation’s food supply

LatinaLista — The White House continues its campaign to pressure congressional lawmakers to address comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) with their latest White House press conference call on the issue.

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Compared to past White House efforts where Latino celebrities, Silicon Valley CEOs and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were in attendance, this call was extremely unsexy when it came to “star power,” but it may prove to be the linchpin in getting people to understand that CIR is not just about illegal immigration.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman delivered prepared remarks that echo the standard White House message on the issue: “Our immigration system is broken. We must fix our broken immigration system. We need a civil debate on the issue.”

Yet, once we get past the canned remarks, it quickly becomes clear that passing CIR is vital to the future and current food production of the United States.

According to Stallman, the agriculture industry across the country is dependent on farm laborers. He pointed out that officially there is no way of knowing the percentage of workers who are here illegally (though a Washington Post article states that undocumented farm workers make up 50 percent to 75 percent of seasonal crop workers) but what is known with certainty is that the current crop of workers are responsible for $5-$9 billion of food production.

Stallman contends that if those workers were taken out of the industry equation, the impact would be so significant that either food prices would rise or the U.S. would have to resort to importing food from other countries.

“Consumers have a disconnect with food production,” Stallman said. “They think their fruit and produce come from the store but they don’t think about who picks it to get it to them.”

Though legislators have only shown interest in addressing one small element of CIR, and that’s the enforcement measure known as E-Verify, both men pointed out problems of costs and implementation with the program and reiterated their broader message of tackling CIR as a whole bill and not in piecemeal fashion.

When asked why not just pass the Ag Jobs bills and leave CIR for another day, Secretary Vilsack said, “The advantage of passing comprehensive immigration reform is that one system that is predictable and consistent across the country is set up and people have a consistent set of rules to follow.”

Stallman acknowledged that the Ag Jobs bill has been around for several years but claims it doesn’t go far enough. “It’s a short-term solution that works for 3-5 years but then we fall back on needing comprehensive immigration reform.”

“It’s time for an extended conversation (on immigration reform),” Secretary Vilsack concluded. “We have a good thing going with our agriculture system and we want to continue it.”

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