Representatives of the Texas fruit and vegetable industry used last week’s annual conference as a platform to challenge Congress to act quickly to pass an immigration reform law or risk severe damage to the state’s agricultural economy.

“The harsh reality is that if Congress does nothing or passes an enforcement only law, Texas produce will move south of the river,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, during a press briefing at the annual Texas Produce Convention Friday in San Antonio. “Enforcement only will out-source one more U.S. industry.” He said legislators have only a short time to avoid being labeled “a do nothing Congress.”

“We will be disappointed if a conference committee is appointed and fails to work out a final immigration bill, but we will be much more upset if the leadership of Congress gives up on the issue without a concerted effort to appoint a committee that will get the job done,” said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual and vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association.

Tamar Jacoby, with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said the window of opportunity to get a workable bill passed is narrow. Jacoby said if Congress does not act quickly following the August recess, the issue likely will be difficult to resurrect with a new Congress next year. She said the Senate has passed a reasonable bill that includes the three elements she believes to be crucial to a workable immigration program: border security, guest worker program and offering current illegals a path to legal status. “We need a quest worker program, enforcement, and a way to identify the 12 million illegals already in the country,” she said. “We have to do all three.”

Jacoby said the immigration law is broken. “But we can fix it. It can work.”

Charlie Stenholm, former U.S. congressman and long-time member of the House ag committee, said chances of passing legislation with all three of those elements before the November election is about 10 percent. “But I’m a farmer,” he said. “So I’m optimistic. We’re already seeing increased enforcement with economic results.”

Bernie Thiel, a vegetable producer from Lubbock, Texas, has felt those repercussions. “We’ve had to cut back acreage because we don’t have enough labor,” he said. “We advertised locally for labor and had zero retention.” Thiel said no one answering the ads lasted more than two weeks.

Will Steele, vice president of Frontera Produce in Hidalgo County, said lack of labor this year cost the company 40,000 cartons of cantaloupes. “Melons were bringing $10 a carton so direct loss to Frontera and our growing partner, Krenmueller Farms, was $400,000.”

Considering the multiplier effect of farm production, loss to the Texas economy was nearly $800,000.

“We want border security,” McClung said. “We want workers for jobs U.S. citizens won’t do. And we want a means to make current illegal workers legal.”

He said an enforcement-only policy would “disembowel several industries. We need reform this year.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com