In a move that appears to put the agriculture sector on notice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ramping up audits of employer records at the same time the Department of Homeland Security is pushing the E-Verify system.

ICE recently announced a plan to audit 1,000 businesses to ensure they are using legal work forces. It’s unknown how many are agricultural — and specifically specialty crop growers — but the message is clear: Failure to embrace the E-Verify online system could result in a visit from federal immigration officials.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable growers are trying to balance the needs of a steady and reliable base of employees and a desire to ensure all worker documents are legal and verifiable. The alternative is to face the prospect of hefty fines — businesses in all sectors have paid almost $16 million this year.

Immigration reform hasn’t been a serious issue in Congress since it was dropped like a hot potato in the summer of 2007 — its fate sealed by upcoming presidential elections. Since then, a financial and real estate meltdown and a national debate on health care have robbed the immigration reform of its immediacy.

In announcing the audits and the specter of fines, the Obama administration is making it clear: The law is the law.

True, but to really address the problem, the White House needs to lay the groundwork for an immigration reform plan that includes a feasible guest worker program.

And soon — another presidential election is just three years away.

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