Asked about the likelihood of actual progress on immigration, Vilsack pointed to Congress “considering some legislation focused on an E-Verify system.” E-Verify is an internet-based government program that helps determine if a migrant worker is eligible to work in the United States.

Both Vilsack and Stallman said E-Verify alone will not solve agriculture’s labor issues.

“The E-Verify system creates a potential difficulty, particularly for smaller businesses,” said Vilsack. “That’s because they’d have to invest resources in equipment and training to participate.

“It would give legal workers the opportunity to correct their record. It would be accompanied by a legalization program that would allow unauthorized workers to get right with the law by registering and obtaining documentation if they meet rigorous criteria” including background checks, fingerprinting and other things.

Stallman: “Our concern is that without a legal agricultural guest worker program in place – or without comprehensive immigration reform – you have roughly 500,000 workers out there that, frankly, would be screened out (by) a mandatory E-Verify program. If that happens, the risk of production losses, or production moving outside the country, is very real…

“If you just put in a mandatory E-Verify program, there’s suddenly a huge gap in agricultural that must be filled from somewhere. Otherwise, the crops won’t be planted and harvested. That’s the reality.”