In the wake of a Department of Homeland Security enforcement push aimed at 1,000 employers, agriculture advocates say the consequences would be grim if immigration reform isn’t as aggressive as the federal crackdown on illegal workers.

“We hope they are as serious about immigration reform as they are about enforcement,” said Jason Resnick, assistant general counsel for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.

Employment needs remain steady, worksite enforcement is increasing and the H-2A guest worker program for agriculture is being reformed in a way that many believe will make the program unworkable.

“It’s a perfect storm for ag, and the only real solution will be Congress to have the gumption to get something done on this issue,” said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscaping Association, Washington, D.C.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement assistant secretary John Morton on Nov. 19 announced 1,000 employers in the U.S. were sent notices of inspection that ICE will audit their hiring records to determine compliance with eligibility verification laws.

ICE did not identify the business selected for inspection. The agency said the list was compiled as a result of investigative leads and business connection to public safety and national security. The agency said the audits involve a comprehensive review of I-9 forms, which employers complete and retain for every employee. The I-9 form asks the employer to review and record each worker’s eligibility documents and determine if they appear to be genuine.

From discussions with immigration officials, Regelbrugge said the highest number of audits will occur in Texas, followed by California, Florida, New York and Arizona.

Resnick said he had not heard from any Western Growers members who received notice of an audit from ICE. However, Regelbrugge said he heard reports of about 10 agricultural operations in California that were part of the 1,000 announced by ICE.

ICE’s enforcement action may be a precursor to a renewed push for immigration reform by the Obama administration, Regelbrugge said.

“I think politically they have come to the conclusion you can’t get to broad immigration reform without demonstrating a clear willingness to enforce,” he said.

Resnick said Western Growers is hopeful the Obama administration and Congress will enact immigration reform and AgJobs in the first quarter of 2010.

“It seems to me this enforcement activity is a precursor to a broader immigration effort by the administration and Congress, so we hope that we see significant strides in immigration reform in the first few months of 2010,” he said.

“If not, the latest enforcement push will be extremely detrimental toward growers, as they figure to lose high numbers of valuable employees and have no means to replace them with workers that are properly documented.”