National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The promise of immigration reform can be compared to when the "Peanuts" comic strip character Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown to kick. Just as Charlie Brown believes that Lucy, for once, will hold the ball perfectly in place for him to kick it through the imaginary uprights, Lucy pulls the ball back. Charlie Brown lands on his backside and tragic hilarity ensues.

The cruelty of repeated tries at immigration reform without a favorable outcome is surely wearing on growers in the same way. But hope is there, still.

The point of it is whether immigration reform can deliver on two desired results: an improved guest worker program for agriculture and a way for the current undocumented workers to remain in the workforce.

The American economy and its farmers can’t withstand another round of foolish delay, another football pulled away at the last minute.

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the Vass-based North Carolina Growers Association, told me it is not the fear of enforcement that is compelling growers to become more vocal about immigration reform. Instead, it is the fear that the supply of farm workers is growing more and more inadequate.

With specialty crop commodities often requiring thousands of dollars per acre to grow the crop and get it to market, farmers can’t go to the bank for a $1 million operating loan and not know if he will have enough workers to harvest his crops.

“This notion of going and borrowing a million plus dollars for an operating loan and just hoping that you will have enough labor to get all the work done; farmers are gamblers by their very nature, but they don’t want play Russian roulette,” he said.

There is some talk now that even with immigration reform, the demographics of Mexico are changing and that reality will leave the U.S. with worker shortages. The “end of farm labor abundance, as it were.

This may be true, that Mexico has decreasing ability to supply the U.S. with farm labor over time. Yet in any case there is no argument against bold action to create an employer-friendly guest worker program as soon as possible.

The fact that a bipartisan group of U.S. senators have agreed on principles for the framework of immigration reform is encouraging. The general aim of the legislation sounds, familiar, true: tough but fair path to citizenship, effective employment verification system, and an improved process to bring future workers to the U.S.

While the Senate plan stated reform legislation should create a workable program to meet the needs of America’s agricultural industry, President Obama didn’t specifically address agriculture.

In the months ahead, Congress and the president must make a generous provision for future flows of agriculture workers into the U.S.

If giving a path to citizenship to current undocumented workers is important to them, they must go against Big Labor to insist that an improved guest worker program is available to growers.

United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement that he was pleased that President Obama didn’t propose a new visa program for guest workers. While farm labor advocates can be valuable allies for immigration reform, President Obama and members of Congress must meet the labor needs of production agriculture. Unions have traditionally been against guest worker programs so their counsel on the subject is tainted.

Many farm labor advocates believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture should run the next version of the agricultural guest worker program, with the primary priority of helping U.S. agricultural employers find the guest workers they need in a timely fashion.

In the months ahead, the debate on immigration reform will have to navigate the explosive territory of “amnesty” in dealing with current unauthorized workers. Health care costs will also be raised as a volatile objection to moving forward.

Given the potential pitfalls ahead, failure is always a possibility. Whether it is union-friendly liberal Democrats or Tea Party conservatives who pull the football away, agricultural producers will be on their backsides either way. Again.

A better result would be the ball splitting the uprights, giving President Obama a lasting legacy and Republicans a stronger Latino appeal in the next election. And most importantly, of course, fruit and vegetable growers would have a more secure promise of labor to harvest U.S.-grown fresh produce.