To harvest legal workers, we need to pass AgJOBS

In spring, whenever storm clouds gather heavy with hail capable of ripping fragile crops to shreds, my mother always says: "I'm sure glad I'm not a farmer anymore, depending on the weather, which is so undependable."

In late summer, as the rains become scarce and harvests are endangered, there she is again: "I'm sure glad I'm not a farmer anymore, depending on the weather, which is so undependable."

I'll add my own refrain on behalf of the less than 2 percent of the U.S. work force still involved in agriculture: "I'm sure glad I'm not a farmer trying to hire immigrant agricultural help legally, depending on the whims of Congress, which is so undependable."

Some half a million U.S. farmers are in just that situation. They have more than 3 million agricultural jobs to fill every year, much of it seasonal labor. Many find few options other than hiring illegal immigrants.

That's why it's critical that Congress passes the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, which was introduced Thursday. It offers a sensible solution to our immigration problem, or at least a partial one, because it seeks to legalize long-standing seasonal laborers, as long as they meet certain conditions, and temporarily and legally match new immigrant workers to unmet labor needs. It's a win-win.

An AgJOBS bill was introduced in the last session of Congress but got nowhere, thanks largely to the anti-immigrant furor created by activists who seem to believe that U.S.-born workers are ready, willing and eager to fill the millions of seasonal ag jobs available every year.

Common sense, and maybe even their own family background, should tell people otherwise. We're not living on the farm anymore.

The Department of Labor estimates that at least 75 percent of ag workers are hired illegally, largely from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. That percentage has increased dramatically in recent years, a consequence of increased illegal immigration and population shifts of U.S.-born people relocating to cities.

The illegal status is the obvious problem. Humane labor conditions and fair wages for farmworkers, whether U.S.-born or immigrant, are too easily shirked without federal oversight. Nor can we just continue to ignore our broken immigration policy. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement has signaled it will not continue the infamous raids it staged during the Bush administration, but why should that reassure farmers? The issue of legality needs to be resolved.

Let's be clear, recession or no, Americans are not going to head in droves back to field labor. Perhaps because so few of us are employed doing it, it's easy to forget how important agriculture is to our economy.

Oh, sure, there are growing legions of dirt diggers among us. But tilling a bit of the back yard for a row or two of produce is not going to feed the nation.

The weather hasn't changed. It is still an unpredictable aspect of farming. Congress can't do anything about that. But it can give farmers the help they deserve to legally hire the help they need to bring in this year's harvest.