Tamar Jacoby, with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, says the United States is fortunate to have Mexico as a next-door neighbor.

More to the point, the United States is fortunate to have a ready supply of labor to perform unskilled tasks that U.S. workers no longer want to do.

“The American workforce has changed,” Jacoby said in a special address at the recent Texas Produce Conference in San Antonio.

“In 1960,” she said, “about half of U.S. men dropped out of high school to do physical work. Now, less than 10 percent do. Not many want to do unskilled labor.”

That creates a large demand for construction, landscape maintenance and agricultural jobs. Currently, the immigration quota to fill that demand is 1-million workers. “We need 1.5 million,” Jacoby said. “We are out of sync by one-third.”

She said illegality is the issue that sticks in U.S. citizens’ craws. “Illegality is not good for workers, employers or for the country,” she said. “It is good for smugglers and bad apple employers who only want cheap labor.”

She said most immigrants, legal or not, “are not criminals,” just people who want jobs. But, because of the illegal status of many workers, political polarization makes equitable solutions elusive.

“The solution is to raise the quota,” she said. “We need a guest worker program.”

She said immigration reform should stand on three legs — a guest worker program, enforcement within the program and enforcement in the workplace.

“We need a scan identification card,” she said. “And the employer should not be responsible for fraudulent cards.”

She said enforcement becomes easier with legitimate identification procedures. “With a sound system, jobs are filled by legitimate workers,” she said, “so we have fewer illegals.”

She said the current law is unrealistic. “And we just pretend to enforce it with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We have to replace that with a workable legal system.”

She said an effective guest worker program would improve border security. “It’s in our own best interest to get on the right side of the law,” she said. “We don’t know who the illegal immigrants are. They have no ID and we have no way to find them.”

She said estimates put current number of illegal immigrants at about 12 million but that figure could be low because of our inability to identify them.

“The law is broken and we need to fix it,” she said. The challenge comes from a vocal 25 percent of the population that “doesn’t like immigrants. They say ‘send them home,’” Jacoby said. “That 25 percent could make a big difference in a tight political race and these people are motivated and angry. Congress needs to hear from the agriculture industry,” she said.

“Republican leadership will not act until they hear from constituents. They need to know that you can’t run your business without these workers. Whole communities will suffer.”

Jacoby said the Senate has passed a decent immigration reform bill. “It’s not perfect,” she said. The House of Representatives, meanwhile “has passed a bad bill.” That bill would focus on enforcement and ignore the need to increase quotas or to find a means to allow current illegal immigrants to become legal.

She said a narrow window of opportunity exists to enact meaningful reform this year. And if that doesn’t happen, passage by the next Congress is far from assured.

Jacoby said a big hurdle is amnesty for current illegal aliens. The Senate bill would allow those undocumented workers to come forward, pay back taxes, a fine and leave the country for a short period and then come back legally.

“Most would do just about anything to become legal,” she said. “They would agree to leave the country for a week or two and then come back. They would not come forward if that absence is more than a week or two.”

Some House members, she said, think that policy is “not tough enough.”

She said the American people are being asked to choose between security and prosperity. “That’s an unacceptable choice. We need to fix the law so it’s not a choice between the two. We can fix the system but it will take political action.”

She said immigration “will get enforcement if we want it or not. It’s already ramping up and it could become a chokehold.”

She said congressional leadership currently “does not want to have the debate.”

She and others referred to U.S. legislators as a “do nothing Congress,” as far as immigration reform is concerned.

“If we don’t fix our immigration policy, the public will get angrier and they will build a fence. Enforcement will increase and they will cut off the labor supply. That is going to hurt. We’re already seeing stepped up enforcement.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com