With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, no one will disagree that immigration reform needs to be a priority.

For many reasons, most U.S. workers choose employment in other vocations leaving a labor vacuum on crop fields and livestock farms. The fact is, U.S. agriculture has a labor crisis. 

“Most farmers and ranchers still struggle to find all the workers they need,” says Gene Hall, public relations director, Texas Farm Bureau.  “The majority of the illegal aliens came here to work.”

Without an immigrant labor force, much of the nation’s food production would not make it to supermarket coolers and shelves. “Jobs in agriculture are often filled by the only people willing to do the type of work,” says Orlando Gil, president, TCTS, LLC.

If American agriculture is to continue being the world’s largest food provider we need a solution to the immigrant issue that will stand the test of time. This is not a "one time fix and forget problem; it is one we need to address and manage continually,” says Gil.

With workable immigration reform, the benefits are many. Immigrants who become legal would likely purchase more goods and services from U.S. businesses. “They'll be eligible for credit, loans, insurance, banking, plane tickets and driver's licenses,” adds Gil.

Plus, they would eventually pay more into federal and state coffers in the form of taxes, another welcome prospect.

Clearly, agriculture, and thereby America, stand to benefit in a big way with immigration reform. Chances for that reform occurring in 2010, however, appear to be dwindling. In addition, now is not the time to legalize millions of unauthorized immigrants. The reason is that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is in the midst of converting to an electronic system of keeping records which will take years.

Whenever Congress gets around to addressing the issue, there are several priorities which will help make immigration reform long-lasting and successful:

1.  Secure the borders first. Without this critical first step, any immigration reform efforts will likely fail.

2. Do not allow blanket amnesty for unauthorized immigrants already residing here. It’s the wrong thing to do because it would base a new “citizenship” on the individual’s crime of unauthorized entry and provide encouragement to others who are still outside the borders to do the same.  Plus, it would be a real slap in the face to those who went through proper channels to become lawful U.S. residents.

3. Do no additional harm to U.S. residents. Adopting policies or creating laws that add further pressure to already-strained local and state budgets will cause a public backlash.

4. Develop a “Road to Legalization” for those unauthorized immigrants already residing here. Before we certify unauthorized immigrants, however, two priorities must be met. They must be found to have no felonies and they must be registered to pay their full share of  income taxes.

5. Set an end date for those unauthorized immigrants to begin the process for legalization, after which those who do not will be assumed to have felonies or are not paying taxes, and will be subject to apprehension.

6. Avoid laws that treat all states the same. California, for example, which is home to an estimated 3 million illegal immigrants, will require customized solutions. States must have “ownership” of the solution for reform to succeed.

The appetite of U.S. and worldwide consumers for fresh and wholesome meat and dairy products, fruits and vegetables will certainly continue to rise regardless of how the U.S. immigration scenario works out. The question becomes: Will this bounty of food be produced in the United States or elsewhere?

“Comprehensive immigration reform is needed, so that America’s farmers and ranchers can continue to produce an abundant supply of safe, healthy food, fiber and renewable fuels,” says Hall.

Immigration reform will require courage and a willingness to embrace the ideals on which the country was founded. Successful immigration reform also will take a commitment to keep the United States the world leader in food production.