Asked about comprehensive immigration reform versus something specifically targeting agriculture, Vilsack said farmers need consistency. “It’s important that we have one system and that it be predictable, consistent and understandable. We (must) create a process by which employers – in whatever stage of agriculture production/processing – have some degree of consistency and understanding of what the rules are.

“It’s difficult to know when someone is documented and when someone isn’t. It’s difficult when there are efforts at enforcement that basically disrupt not only undocumented folks but also documented … which we’ve seen in some of the processing facilities.”

Vilsack said the current “broken” system means migrant workers are “unwilling to do what they used to do: travel back-and-forth. They’re actually staying in the country and that creates the issue of what to do with 12 million undocumented folks. The reality is, if you tried to deport all 12 million it would take several hundred years. That isn’t practical.”

What is keeping the Obama administration from providing a temporary fix until Congress is able to act?

Complexity, answered Vilsack. “If you try to do this administratively, there are a number of bureaucratic obstacles to go through. There are a number of ways whatever bureaucratic approach you create can be subject to challenge. Then, you have potential inconsistency of application in various parts of the country. And it doesn’t necessarily address the entire supply chain set of issues that agriculture is uniquely positioned on…

“I’m not sure (the Obama administration) has enough jurisdiction and reach to be able to do that.”

Queried on labor rights and farm workers right to organize, Vilsack said that would be addressed only after immigration reform. “This isn’t a situation where we’re talking about collective bargaining rights. That’s a completely different, and important, discussion. But it isn’t one that fits in comprehensive immigration reform…

“Once that’s created, you can go into a series of questions about the relationship between the employer and employee. And you should. But you can’t get to that point until you have a system that allows people to be legitimately here. We don’t have that today.”

Asked if immigration reform could help with border security, Vilsack cited a list of talking points. Over the last two years, “the president has taken the government’s responsibility to enforce immigration laws and secure borders very seriously. We’ve dedicated unprecedented amounts of resources to our borders; implemented smarter, more strategic enforcement policies. And we’ve had results: borders are more secure than ever, apprehensions along the border reflect far fewer attempts to cross illegally, and the seizure of illegal currency, drugs and guns are dramatically up leading to increased criminal arrests and prosecutions.

“In FY 2010, the (Obama) administration increased the number of convicted criminals removed from our country by more than 23,000. That represents a 70 percent increase over the previous administration.

“We’ve also doubled the number of work site enforcement investigations conducted in FY 2010 compared to FY 2008. These investigations have led to millions of dollars in fines levied against employers for violating laws.  

“We’ve also improved the legal immigration system by reducing the backlog of immigration applications.

“All of that is important and necessary. But the reality is it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to simply secure the border. There needs to be a comprehensive immigration system that deals with the 12 million people here, many working in our farm fields.”

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