The issue of illegal immigrants - or if you prefer, undocumented workers - will continue to be one of the hot button issues for 2010.

Recent coverage of Congressional effort to pass health care reform referred to the issue of whether the legislation applies to illegal immigrants and the implications for the reform push if it does not.

From The Atlantic

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had reportedly warned President Obama that it will vote against health care reform if it includes the Senate's provision blocking illegal immigrants from getting coverage, appears to be backing off that pledge: TPMDC's Christina Bellantoni reports that Congressional Hispanic Caucus members won't block health reform if the White House assures them that it will move forward with comprehensive immigration reform before the end of the year--reform that, CHC members are demanding, will address health care reform for undocumented aliens.

Comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship is a difficult thing to pass--possibly as difficult as health care reform. The last time Congress tried it was in 2007, when Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy worked together to craft a bill that also had the imprimatur of President Bush, who sought to rally what was left of his troops around immigration as the last sizable domestic initiative of his presidency. Despite its bipartisan genesis, it failed in a series of votes in June. The closest it got was a 50 to 45 vote against cloture. Democrats now hold 60 seats, so it may be easier this time around, giving them nine more votes, but, if the 2007 attempt is a model for the next immigration reform push, it's a tough deficit to overcome.

UPDATE: A Congressional Hispanic Caucus spokesperson disputed TPMDC's report, saying, "The CHC's position remains the same: it opposes provisions in the Senate health care bill that would negatively impact immigrants."

Bellantoni reported that, according to her sources, CHC members would not admit to any such deal publicly--so it should be acknowledged that the denial fits with the narrative those sources presented--but the CHC is on record disputing it.

The moral difficulty in excluding hard-working and injury susceptible farm workers from coverage - whether they are illegal or not - has caused some to say that comprehensive immigration reform should be accomplished before health care reform.

The Senate health care reform legislation - generally more favorable to business interests - exempts employers from providing coverage to their workers if their work force exceeds 50 full time employees for 120 days or fewer, and if those employees were seasonal workers.

For agricultural employers, the issue of qualifying their workers as legally documented for the purposes of the health care reform legislation promises to be thorny. How airtight will such determinations be? By virtue of being employed, one is assumed to be a legally documented worker. However, we know from industry accounts that well more than half seasonal farm workers are falsely documented.

With unemployment still at 10% and underemployment at 17% plus, the American people have little patience for their tax dollars being spent on "law breakers' - no matter if those same law-breakers help deliver food to their table.

Although a recent economic study – “Raising the floor for American workers”  - has insisted that comprehensive immigration reform would benefit the economy more than an enforcement only approach, such conclusions are counterintuitive to Joe Six-pack.

If Congress can finish the job on health care reform legislation, I wonder how soon members will want to dip their toe into the water of comprehensive immigration reform and incur more wrath from the recession-weathered electorate.

Even as they are battered with new mandates and heightened immigration enforcement, American growers and their advocates face an uphill climb in their efforts to secure a legal workforce for agriculture.