When will the pain due to a lack of reform hit?

“It’s already impacting folks,” argued Vilsack. “The report indicates folks are making decisions to contract their operations, to move their operations outside the United States…

“It’s now up to the House to pass a comprehensive bill – or a series of bills that will equate to a comprehensive approach. The time is now. There is momentum for this and a desire to get it done. There is an alignment of interest groups you don’t normally see: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce aligned with the AFL-CIO; the Western Growers Association aligned with United Farm Workers Union; Evangelical ministers and faith-based leaders aligned with progressive and liberal faith-based leaders. … There is no excuse not to get this done.”

Vilsack pointed to North Carolina, with some 53,000 farms. Producers “recognize that 46 percent of their workforce is non-citizen. A good percentage is probably not documented properly. They understand they could lose $150 million to $285 million in economic activity as a result of not having a system that works.”

What about the argument that such reforms would reward illegal behavior?

The pathway to citizenship will be “earned,” insisted Vilsack. First, undocumented worker must acknowledge illegal behavior. That would be accomplished through “the payment of a fairly stiff and significant penalty – in some cases amounting to thousands of dollars.

“When an American violates the law, one of two consequences can occur: jail or a fine. Most often, folks are fined for wrongdoing. That’s essentially what the penalty is. … That’s very consistent with ways we deal with wrongdoing in this country.”

In addition, the applicants would be required to “ensure they don’t have a serious criminal background. They have to basically learn the language. They have to pay back-taxes. They have to commit themselves to continue working in agriculture for a period of time to get into line. And they go to the back of the line – not the front.”

Vilsack rejected opponents claiming the reforms are a free pass or amnesty. “An amnesty program would be if there wasn’t a penalty with it, if there weren’t responsibilities and requirements.”

To secure citizenship, applicants will have to be “quite patient. … It may take as much as 10 to 13 years for the process to be fully completed.”

Will the current agricultural shadow economy persist even with immigration reform? On this, Vilsack made no promises. “History has shown that when you have … an immigration system that’s working, the economy grows, jobs are created and working conditions improve.”

A day after the report’s release, a coalition of 400 U.S. business and advocacy organizations signed a letter to House leadership urging immigration reform legislation be brought to the House floor.

“Reform of an outdated, broken immigration system is essential if we are to achieve a fully revitalized economy that provides rewarding and lasting jobs and opportunities for all Americans,” the letter says. “We deal with an immigration system that is now in its third decade and completely incapable of being responsive to an ever-changing national economy and hypercompetitive global marketplace. Today, the problems with our immigration system have grown and multiplied to become an emerging threat to the current and future productivity, ingenuity, and competitiveness of key sectors of our economy, including agriculture, housing, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, tourism, engineering, and technology.”

Read the full letter here.