NEW ORLEANS — The long-simmering issue of immigration reform is about to boil over.

During a grower-shipper town hall forum May 2 at United Fresh 2011, audience member Mike Stuart said E-Verify worker validation is looming in Florida.

Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the provision (which requires employers to validate that workers have valid social security numbers) has strong support from Florida Gov. Rick Scott and in the Legislature.

The E-Verify law in Georgia is a threat to that state’s vegetable producers, he said, adding that when South Carolina adopted E-Verify growers saw half their work force evaporate.

Maureen Marshall, president of Elba, N.Y.-based Torrey Farms, said a New York grower who was arrested for worker violations faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“E-Verify is going to put us out of business,” she said.

Explaining the issue to the public in a way that makes them understand the threat agriculture faces poses a challenge, Marshall said.

“We have a tough road ahead of us,” she said.

Stuart said other industries (such as restaurants and hotels) that rely on immigrant labor have voiced some support for fighting together on the issue, as has the Chamber of Commerce.

Moderator Fred Williamson, president of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, recalled being in the packing shed as a young boy when immigration enforcement raided his father’s tomato-packing operation.

He cited that memory as proof that it’s past time for the industry to take a stand for immigrants who make so many of its businesses viable.

Grower-shippers cite urgent need for immigration reform