Apples, cherries and other unpicked fruit could rot away if Congress doesn't pass an immigration reform bill soon, the nation's top agricultural official said.
Farmers could lose the immigrant labor they need to harvest crops, milk cows or process livestock, and they might decide to shut down their farm operations or move them out of the country, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told The Times in a telephone interview.
Northwest Indiana residents could end up paying higher prices at the grocery store if there is a smaller food supply or the produce has to travel farther.
Vilsack is talking with media outlets all over the country to urge lawmakers to approve immigration reform, which passed the U.S. Senate with 68 votes a few weeks ago but which has since languished in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The former governor of Iowa argues the bill would retain a stable workforce of farmhands, secure the borders, establish a pathway to citizenship and boost the economy.
Immigrants would be more likely to make major purchases, pay taxes and contribute to Social Security if they didn't fear the possibility of being deported, Vilsack said.
"Comprehensive immigration reform brings people out of the shadows, out of a cash economy and into the regular economy," he said. "They're more likely to purchase a home or a car if they're appropriately documented,"
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the additional tax revenue would reduce the deficit by up to $200 billion over the next 10 years. The Gross Domestic Product is projected to increase by at least half a percentage point, Vilsack said.
Critics of the legislation, such as Republican Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, said the borders should be secured before a path to citizenship is established.
"When the underlying bill basically says the Secretary of Homeland Security will state that the the department has a strategy to address the border security problem, that does not play very well with people who have seen strategies promised before," Coats said in a speech before the Senate. "They want to see results."
Vilsack said the legislation include a historic amount of investment in border security, which would result in 700 miles of fence along the country's southern border and twice as many border patrol agents.
"It's time to fix the broken immigration system by securing the border and giving those currently in the workforce an earned pathway to citizenship that will bring them out of the shadows," he said.
The issue is urgent because farmers are having trouble finding enough immigrant workers to harvest fruit and other crops, which could be lost, Vilsack said. Scarcity would drive up food prices if that happens.
Frustrated farmers could end up moving some operations south of the border, and turning fields over to developers or row crops like corn and soybeans that can be harvested by machine. America's food supply would end up less safe and secure, Vilsack said
"The agricultural producers can't grow it if no one's there to pick it at the right time," he said.