Legislators worried about a single comprehensive immigration package should take a page from the farm bill playbook and consider instead passing a few smaller bills, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested Monday.
Vilsack, during a conference call with reporters, said inactivity on immigration reform is hurting the agriculture industry and hurting overall economic productivity. Without new legislation, farmers don't have access to the legal workforce they need to produce and harvest crops.
Standing in the way, Vilsack said, are House Representatives, many of which stand opposed to a comprehensive plan put forth by the Senate last year.
House Speaker John Boehner, who last fall said an immigration bill was off the table before 2014, is now faced with a new year and new pressures from conservative members who aren't supportive of a a single comprehensive bill.
Opposing the comprehensive nature of the package is a "fairly lame" excuse for not acting on immigration reform, he said.
"Fine. Then pass a series of smaller bills," Vilsack suggested. "The problem is, they haven't passed anything."
Vilsack said, however, that both Boehner and House Majority Leader Cantor are supportive of a legislative solution for current immigration policies. But, no legislation has surfaced that would indicate boundaries for conversation about reform, Vilsack added.
"When they get to a point that bills are passed, what they will find is American agriculture quite united in terms of what has to happen in order for there to be a stable and secure workforce," he said.
Vilsack was joined by Virginia apple farmer Phil Glaize, who said the immigrant workforce is necessary for his operation, which employs 15 full-time workers, 115 as seasonal harvest help and another 60 for packing help.
"For the last three years in a row, we have been unable to find the 115 workers we've needed to harvest our crop," Glaize said. "It's examples like this that have me not expanding acreage."
The trickle-down effect this is having on Virginia's economy is noticeable, Glaize said. Fewer apples harvested means the apple industry can't support as many workers' wages, processing plants, trucking jobs or wholesale jobs.
On a broader scale, Vilsack explained that immigration reform is essential to the economy, pointing to the 1 in 12 American jobs that is connected to U.S. agriculture.
Such an agreement would be a win for the federal government, too, he said, offering figures from the Congressional Budget Office that estimate a reform plan would unearth more tax dollars and offer an $850 billion decrease for the federal deficit.
The length of the Social Security system would also be extended by several years as a result of reform, Vilsack said, as workers are allowed a pathway to legalization.
"The workers who are here without proper authorization are stuck. They have no place to go. They can't leave, and they can't come out of the shadows. That can't be … a good resolution of this," Vilsack said.
Whatever happens, Vilsack said the time is now to pass something, even if it is just one small bill.
"When you essentially don't pass anything, you have no vehicle – no avenue – for resolving differences, and things get stuck."