A report released by the White House on Monday claims that without a major overhaul of immigration laws U.S. agriculture is destined for a loss of jobs, money and farming operations.

The timing of the report’s release was no coincidence. The White House is very interested in keeping immigration reform at the forefront of concerns sure to be expressed to lawmakers by constituents during the August recess.

The Senate has already passed bipartisan, comprehensive immigration legislation. That means little because the House leadership has decided to break immigration reform into smaller bits that remain at committee level.

On Monday afternoon, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, told reporters, “everyone understands and appreciates that the immigration system is broken and is having an impact on agriculture and rural communities…

“The report basically starts by defining the problem. That is, there have been, roughly, 1.1 million full-time farm workers employed in the agriculture sector in the United States. Based on surveys done by the Department of Labor over the years, it is safe to say that at least half of those working in farm fields are probably not documented. Specifically, for those working for less than two years, we expect that close to three-quarters of those workers are not here with proper authorization.”

Read the full report here.

The situation impacts fruit and vegetable production more directly than it does other aspects of agriculture.

“We now know from a series of surveys that the broken immigration system is beginning to have an impact on labor scarcity within agriculture,” Vilsack continued. “The report addresses a number of surveys. One conducted in Texas in 2008 indicated that 77 percent of respondents indicated there was a lack of available workers. That led them to contract the size and scope of their business. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed indicated a shift of a portion of their operations abroad. That indicates some agriculture production is actually moving outside the United States.”

A 2011 survey of Georgia growers “indicated that 78 percent of those growers had experienced harvesting and packing labor shortages during the spring season.”

That then led to a second survey by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. In that, “they found 25 percent of agricultural producers and processors in the state had experienced a loss of income as a result of a lack of available workers. They defined the extent of the impact on the Georgia economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost.”

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 Vilsack said the lack of agriculture labor will result in decreases in agricultural production, outputs and exports. He next brought up California, where there are over 81,000 farms that do some $34 billion in sales annually.

“Seventy-three percent of the workforce is non-citizen. … Failure to have comprehensive immigration could cost California somewhere between $1.7 billion and $3.1 billion annually. If we have comprehensive, commonsense immigration reform could result in an increase of almost 9,500 jobs in the state.”

Amnesty concerns

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.