U.S. pork producers faced significant disruptions in their operations in the immediate aftermath of the December 2006 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on six Swift & Company packing plants. Some pigs were left on trucks; others had to be given extra food as they waited for the plants to re-open. One estimate put the loss to producers at $6 per pig. (Swift has said the raids could cost up to $30 million.)

The ICE enforcement actions revealed not only the economic impact of disrupting the meat-packing industry, but pointed out the need for better ways to verify employees’ identities and, perhaps more importantly, the need for comprehensive immigration reform -- now.

Certainly, pork producers oppose the hiring of illegal aliens and support efforts to secure the U.S. borders. But they also recognize that the pork industry, including packers and producers, needs a stable work force. To that end, the National Pork Producers Council advocates reform of current immigration policies, the establishment of a guest-worker program and an overhaul of the federal “Basic Pilot” program for employers to verify workers’ employment eligibility.

Under existing immigration law, the quotas for various immigration categories are not sufficient to meet the demands of individuals who wish to enter the United States. In the past decade, this has put a tremendous strain on U.S. employers, who have been hard-pressed to find enough native-born American workers to fill jobs, particularly ones requiring certain skills and that occur in certain environmental conditions. What’s more, the employment situation is projected to get worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of available jobs is projected to increase by more than 22 million between 2000 and 2010, while the U.S. civilian labor force is predicted to increase by only 17 million people in that same period.

Immigrants could help fill the gap, but there are more jobs available than there are legal work visas available to immigrant workers. As a first step, Congress must raise legal-immigration quotas, including the employer-based quotas.

Lawmakers must look at implementing a guest-worker program, which would provide another legal avenue for immigrants to enter the country and take jobs that are going unfilled by native-born Americans. Such a program already exists for agriculture. It involves H-2A visas, but Congress must increase quotas for those visas.

Of course, ensuring that employees are eligible to work in the United States is a top legislative priority for the pork industry. Employers need the appropriate tools to verify that employee documents are valid. The Electronic Employment Verification System -- known as the Basic Pilot -- which some employers are using voluntarily, is a start. However, it has some significant flaws that need to be fixed.

Swift & Company had been using the Basic Pilot program for 10 years when ICE agents descended on its plants, scooping up nearly 1,300 immigrant workers, many of whom had used stolen identities to obtain their jobs. Swift officials had complained that the program can’t be used to determine whether an individual’s identification document is fraudulent.

Regardless of whether the Basic Pilot is modified or another verification system is implemented, employers shouldn’t be expected to be the immigration police. Indeed, there’s a limit as to what employers can ask prospective hires. For example, Swift was sued for $2.5 million in 2001 by the U.S. Justice Department for asking employees for too much information and violating their civil rights.

Finally, we have to deal with the “elephant in the room.” The reality is that comprehensive immigration reform must address the millions of workers who are currently in the United States without legal documentation. Many of them have lived and worked in the country for several years, and they have become valuable participants in their workplaces and communities. Forcing these workers to leave their jobs and their communities would serve no compelling national interest. Rather, it would impose a substantial cost on U.S. companies and consumers in terms of disrupted production and even potential unemployment for native-born American workers in the affected industries should businesses be forced to close or relocate.

One possible solution -- reinstate Section 245(i) of the immigration law. It allowed “unauthorized aliens,” among others, who worked in the United States to become permanent residents without leaving the United States through a process called “adjustment of status.” First added to the law in 1994, it let qualified individuals adjust their status by paying a fine. Congress phased out Section 245(i) in January 1998.

The U.S. pork industry -- producers, packers and allied businesses -- provides hundreds of thousands of stable, good-paying jobs. Addressing the immigration issue thoughtfully is imperative to our ability to produce and continue to fill product demands, not to mention compete with other pork-producing countries. If we are to continue to offer safe, high-quality pork to domestic and international markets, as well as meet the animals’ welfare needs, we must have workers to fill the jobs. Allowing more immigrants into this country is one way to meet that challenge.

Joy Philippi of Bruning, Neb., owns and operates Pine Alley L.L.C., a 2,000-head swine nursery that is networked with other local producers. She and her parents are partners in their family farm operation, which includes 400 acres of corn and soybeans.

The Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute think tank has observed: “The overriding impact of immigrants is to strengthen and enrich American culture, increase the total output of the economy, and raise the standard of living of American citizens.”