Saying that the next several months are crucial for chances of immigration reform passing Congress, the Obama administration has begun ramping up efforts to push the issue.

Over a year ago, the Senate passed a bill addressing immigration. Despite pushes from conservative business groups and farm groups the House has not followed suit, although in recent weeks leadership has indicated it could move on legislation.

On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was again beating the drum for comprehensive immigration reform during a trip to California.

“This is an extremely important topic for American agriculture and there is no more important state to American agriculture than California,” said Vilsack during a press call. “Over 81,000 farms in California help make it the Number One ag-producing state in the country. The value of products produced in the state annually often exceeds $33 billion.

“It is a farm economy that is very much dependent on farmworkers. They work extraordinarily hard under challenging conditions.

“Seventy-three percent of those who work on farms in the state aren’t citizens of the United States. Many are here in an appropriate, documented fashion. Some are not.”

The Senate bill, had it passed the House and been signed by the President, “would have already started to produce thousands of new jobs in California. It’s estimated that the Senate bill would have produced almost 10,000 additional jobs and increase California farm income $500 million.”

Reform benefits

Vilsack then hit on several points he returned to repeatedly: the lack of reform means “uncertainty and instability” for American agriculture.

He said analysis of the Senate bill showed that immigration reform would reduce the national deficit $850 million over the next 20 years.

It would also, “help grow the economy, spur new job growth, bring folks out of the shadows and help and strengthen the Social Security system. It would result in historic investment in border security and provide an earned pathway to citizenship for 11 million to 12 million people in this country…

“I emphasize the word ‘earned.’ There would be a financially penalty paid, back taxes would have to be paid.”

The lack of reform means farmworkers and farms are “at a significant disadvantage in several respects. One, some farms are no longer able to harvest what they’ve planted. We’ve seen such circumstances in many parts of the country. In California, there are situations where farmers are reducing acreage because of the drought and lack of a stable workforce.

“I call upon the House leadership -- that has recently been quite vocal in support for the need for comprehensive immigration reform -- to do what leaders are supposed to do. Bring it up for a vote. Get something passed so we can work out whatever differences there are between the Senate and House versions.”

Consequences of no action

And what happens if Congress doesn’t pass immigration reform?

“As long as there’s uncertainty, we’re going to have growers make decisions not to expand,” said Vilsack. “We’re going to have growers make decisions to contract their operations. Some growers will move operations to other countries.

“Over time, if that continues, it will obviously impact the food supply produced domestically. That will not only impact what’s available in grocery stores but also the cost.

“It’s important for everyone to understand we all have a stake in immigration reform as it relates to our food supply.”

Queried on his recent interactions with Congress regarding immigration reform, Vilsack said his conversations have been “primarily with those on the House Agriculture Committee. … It’s fairly clear from Speaker (John) Boehner’s recent comments, and even from Leader (Eric) Cantor’s comments, that they understand there needs to be something done on immigration reform…

“When you talk to members privately, they acknowledge the significance and importance of immigration reform. I think a small minority of people in the House who, for whatever reason, aren’t interested in immigration reform, are making it more difficult than it should be.”

Vilsack said he wasn’t privy to any discussion within the Obama administration regarding ratcheting down deportations, which are at all-time high.

Addressing opponents

Vilsack was unbothered by concerns that immigration reform would actually lead current farmworkers to seek employment outside agriculture. “One thing contained in the Senate (bill) is a set of incentives for folks who are in agriculture to (remain there) for a period of time. (A farmworker) could shorten the time it would take -- and it would take quite a while -- for someone to earn their way to citizenship.

“The other issue that’s often mentioned is these people are taking jobs away from citizens. The bill addresses that by suggesting that before growers can certify the need for an immigrant workforce they’d first have to offer the jobs to citizens.”

Would comprehensive immigration reform mean anything for those trying to enter the United States legally? Visas issued solely for agriculture work?

Vilsack said the current plan would be for a two-step process.

“There are probably 600,000 and 700,000 that have been working in agriculture for a considerable period of time that would love to have a pathway to citizenship. They’d be sort a permanent workforce given permission, in essence, to remain in this country and continue what they’re doing.

“Then, each year, there would be a process where growers would be able to certify through the USDA in concert with the Department of Labor a number of additional workers to supplement and complement the permanent workforce. So, there would be a guest worker program that would provide (the proper balance) of workers. Right now, there is uncertainty and it creates chaos in the marketplace.”

In late April, Iowa Rep. Steve King, an outspoken opponent of immigration reform, said due to the House leadership’s willingness to consider legislation, fellow skeptics must “man the watchtowers 24/7.” Further, King says the issue is being brought up by Democrats largely because it will help them at the ballot box in November and any move toward reform is “political suicide” for Republicans.

Questioned about King, Vilsack would not be drawn in and didn’t respond to King’s comments directly. However, he did needle immigration reform adversaries: “Candidly, it is surprising to me that anybody in public life today – knowing that the deficit would be reduced, knowing that Social Security would be more solvent and with an expanded life expectancy, knowing that the economy could expand by 5 percent over several decades, knowing that border would be secured – would be opposed.

“It’s troublesome and somewhat puzzling to me that House leadership, understanding how good this would be for the country – and, frankly, how good the politics of this will be long-term for both parties – have not yet taken responsibility to get this on the floor and voted on. I’m convinced a majority of the House would pass immigration reform.”