Most Americans don't realize it, but farmers and the food they put on our tables plays an important role in the high quality of life we all enjoy. Partly because American-grown food is relatively inexpensive compared to food in much of the rest of the world, American families can spend more of their income on a home, a vacation, or a college education for their children. In fact, Americans spend only half as much of our total expenditures on food as do the citizens of Italy or Japan.
Immigrant labor plays an important role in making this possible. Every time you take a bite of American food, somebody picked it, processed it, shipped it, stored it, trucked it and shelved it. Many of these folks are immigrants.
As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers - all while wondering if they'll have enough help for their next harvest. And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.
Simply put, our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers trying to do right and make a living. But again and again, good faith efforts to fix America's broken immigration system - from leaders of both parties - fall prey to the usual Washington political games.
We need to start the conversation about immigration reform again - and to keep in mind America's working farmers and ranchers and the food they put on our kitchen tables.
The first consideration must be their economic competitiveness. If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.
Some believe we should deport the 11 million people currently in the country illegally and restrict legal immigration going forward. This is impractical. The legal process to deport all those not here legally would take a long time and cost tens of billions of dollars. The more efficient approach involves pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform that meets our economic and security needs for the 21st century.
Over the past two years, President Barack Obama has taken the first important steps to make this possible - dedicating unprecedented resources to secure our borders and implementing smarter, more strategic enforcement policies. But this smarter enforcement must be coupled with a smart plan to update our outdated system of legal immigration.
Last week, Obama called for a constructive and civil debate around an immigration system that would provide the United States and our farmers a reliable, legal work force. This solution would continue our work to secure the borders. It should hold accountable businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers, but also provide clear guidance for the vast majority of farmers and other employers who want to play by the rules. And it should provide a path to legal status for those willing to admit that they broke the law, pay unpaid taxes, pay a fine, and learn English.
Our nation's farmers need a system that will reward them for playing by the rules - not punish them for it. We need to stop threatening the competitiveness of our agriculture economy with broken immigration policies.
When we pursue comprehensive reform a 21st century immigration system, not only will we help America's farmers and ranchers maintain successful operations with a reliable work force they hire legally, we will ensure that all Americans enjoy the benefits of a safe, affordable and abundant food supply that has helped make us so prosperous today.
Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.