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Those Who Put Food on Our Tables Need a New Immigration Process

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Yes, politicians can overcome partisanship and unite around something: making New York state the next yogurt capital.

However, that can't happen without a new immigration process. And our political leaders have not been able to break through the logjam of inaction on immigration.

Coupled with an enforcement crackdown by the Obama administration, this inertia is leaving farmers across the country in crisis, with too few hands for the harvest this season.

And cows don't milk themselves. That means New York farmers will need more hands.

Compare the promise of this new industry's ability to grow the economy with the reality of an immigration approach that takes away the necessary legal workforce. Dairies are among the most vulnerable to our enforcement-only approach: No program allows them to hire temporary immigrant workers for jobs that otherwise go unfilled.

"The Department of Homeland Security has been doing the job it was hired to do," says Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms Inc., a 12th-generation family farm in western New York. "By aggressively conducting I-9 audits, they are taking away our experienced and skilled workforce."

Torrey is concerned that not far away is a place willing to fill in the gaps and reap the economic benefits: Canada. "They have a viable workers program that we in this area lack," she says.

If Democrats and Republicans cannot come together on an immigration strategy, the Empire State will not be able to foster its upstate dairy farmers' dreams for a yogurt cluster economy.

That cluster economy is good for all of upstate New York, not just dairy farmers, because each skilled farmworker sustains about three nonfarm jobs -- someone has to package and deliver the fruits of farmworkers' labor. And with a 13 percent poverty rate, upstate New York could use those additional jobs.

New York is by no means alone. It's a good year for apples in the state of Washington, but with no system in place for highly skilled, experienced immigrant farmworkers, growers are racing against time.

"The skilled labor source that we depend on is rapidly disappearing," says Ralph Broetje, president of Washington's Broetje Orchards, one of the largest privately owned orchards in the country. "Somehow we need to have the courage to show some compassion for them and some respect for their work."

Without enough labor, farms in New York, Washington state and elsewhere have made the difficult decision to switch to crops that machines can pick. Such a decision not only eliminates jobs but also takes money out of the local economy.

And Broetje notes that producers already are moving their operations outside of the U.S., to countries such as Peru and China that have an adequate labor supply and are better for the bottom line. Such outsourcing has serious implications for food security.

Farmers have a hard enough job as it is, with uncertain factors such as the weather or the price of fuel determining whether they can meet their bottom line each year. Add an unpredictable supply of labor, and farmers are downright vulnerable.

Farms can always cut back production, but that won't decrease Americans' demand for fresh, unblemished vegetables and fruits on our tables. Perhaps our friends north or south of our borders will help meet that demand.

That's right: If Congress can't come together on an immigration process that makes sense for agriculture, your holiday dessert might be as Canadian as apple pie.

If we want our apple pie and other produce to remain "made in America," the time to act is now. Congress must stop sitting on its hands while farmers watch crops rot in the field, and the Obama administration must offer solutions -- not just I-9 audits that point the weapons of government enforcement on agricultural employers.

These are solvable problems. We need an immigration process that is responsive to our economic needs. For farmers, that means a stable and skilled agricultural workforce.

In our economy and on our dinner tables, all of us will reap the benefits.

Ali Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.