IN FOCUS: Immigration reform is big deal for agriculture

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says Congress has to act on comprehensive immigration reform and a 5-year Farm Bill, now.

WHILE not quite the “third rail” of politics, comprehensive immigration reform is one of the more politically fraught issues currently under debate in the U.S. As with entitlement reform, it has come up before, with generally very little action over the past two decades.

That has to change, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“The broad effects that immigration reform would have for our economy are well documented,” he wrote in a recent editorial. “According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary, the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill would boost our economy by 3.3%, reduce the deficit by a projected $850 billion and add nearly $300 billion to our Social Security system by the end of the decade.”

Specific to agriculture, Vilsack added that farmworkers drive an industry that is directly related to one in 12 American jobs. The specialty crop, livestock production and meat processing industries both rely heavily on hired farm labor.

“About half of these workers are unauthorized, and many more are employed under a temporary worker program that is difficult for farmers and farmworkers alike to understand,” Vilsack wrote. “In the years to come, the resulting instability in our agricultural workforce threatens productivity on farms and ranches, and affects rural communities where agriculture is a thriving part of their economies.

“The common-sense immigration reform measure that passed in June by the U.S. Senate, with bipartisan support, would provide a comprehensive set of rules to ensure a stable and adequate workforce for agriculture.”

While the House has flirted with various issues related to immigration, they have not moved a comprehensive package such as the Senate bill. In an interview with Feedstuffs, Vilsack said immigration and a full, 5-year Farm Bill should both be top legislative priorities for Congress, which comes back from its August recess Sept. 9.

Audio: Listen to Vilsack’s comments via the Feedstuffs In Focus podcast.

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