(Dec. 13) SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Arid Arizona’s top agricultural concern is not water availability, but immigration, and the lobbyist for the Arizona State Farm Bureau Federation said it will soon nudge the war on terror — if it hasn’t already — from the limelight in the national arena.

Joe Sigg, the federation’s director of government relations, spoke to National Onion Association Convention attendees Dec. 2 in Scottsdale, Ariz., just days after President Bush spoke on border security and immigration reform in Tucson.

Sigg said the number of undocumented workers has grown from three million in 1986 to an estimated 11 million, and that growth has been spurred by amnesty programs kicked off in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Among other provisions, the act allowed some undocumented agricultural workers to obtain legal U.S. residence.

An estimated 9% of Arizona’s population is illegal, and 60% to 70% of the state’s agricultural workforce is undocumented. Employers, who aren’t trained to detect document fraud, have essentially adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” when hiring, because federal authorities put the onus on employers to ferret out fraud.

“We essentially abandoned enforcement, except for occasional lip service and token shows of enforcement prosecution,” Sigg said.

There are a number of competing plans on immigration reform, including Pres. Bush’s, and different plans from Arizona’s Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl. Sigg said it’s unlikely agriculture issues will be ignored in eventual legislation because the public does not accept that the U.S. needs immigrant labor.

Yuma’s winter growers are having an increasingly difficult time finding enough labor, and Sigg said it takes up to 20,000 workers to harvest those crops.

But even when employers are vigilant, it’s not easy to ensure all documents in order. In one case, a Phoenix-area grower has 130 employees, more than two-thirds of whom have been with the company at least five years. Sigg said the owner recently received a letter from the Social Security Administration concerning mismatched numbers for 60% of his workers.

“We have turned over enforcement to the employers without empowering them,” Sigg said.