Our Voice: Imported food is poor remedy for farm labor shortages

The inability of Congress to fix the nation's broken immigration system is bad for America.

It's hurting the economy and leaving us less secure. The problems are complex, but Congress has a good idea about what needs to be done.

The Senate passed a bill last year that would improve security at the nation's borders and provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in America. Both are key elements to any meaningful reform.

If enacted, the bill would cut the deficit by $900 billion during the next 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But House leadership won't bring the measure to a vote.

The issue is controversial. Conservative Republicans have opposed measures that would qualify illegal immigrants for citizenship, saying that even with tough restrictions and stringent qualifications, it amounts to amnesty.

But pragmatic conservatives in industries that depend on an immigrant workforce recognize that providing some sort of legal status for millions of immigrants already here is essential.

Even trickier but equally crucial to the success of any reform will be the creation of a guest worker system that allows employers to hire foreign workers when Americans aren't available to fill jobs.

It will be challenging to devise a system that fills the need without enabling a range of abuses from the exploitation of immigrants to temporary workers illegally extending their stays.

Recently, business leaders from across the country sent House Speaker John Boehner a letter calling for immigration reform this year. "Failure to act is not an option," the letter stated. "We cannot afford to be content and watch a dysfunctional immigration system work against our overall national interest.

"Immigration reform is an essential element of a jobs agenda and economic growth. It will add talent, innovation, investment, products, businesses, jobs, and dynamism to our economy," according to the letter jointly issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for a New American Economy.

The partnership's members include mayors who represent more than 35 million people nationwide and business leaders of companies that generate more than $1.5 trillion and employ more than 4 million people across all sectors of the economy, according to the group's website.

Signers of the Boehner letter include the Washington State Potato Commission, Washington State Dairy Federation, Yakima Valley Chamber of Commerce, Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, Washington Farm Bureau, Association of Washington Business and Microsoft.

Few in Eastern Washington will be surprised to see agriculture represented on the letter. We're familiar with the industry's dependence on immigrant labor.

But the heavy economic toll imposed by the nation's failure to create a workable immigration system might be less well known.

The Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform recently released results of a study showing the economic losses resulting from American families eating more imported fresh produce than ever before. Much of the blame is because domestic growers lack enough labor to expand their production and compete with foreign importers, the study concluded.

In recent years, the share of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by American families that were grown outside the United States increased 79 percent.

Had U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers been able to maintain the domestic market share they held from 1998-2000, their communities would have enjoyed a substantial economic benefit, resulting in an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone, and U.S. gross domestic product would have been $12.4 billion higher in 2012, according to the report.

We will eat. It looks as if we can pay foreign workers to grow our food abroad or fix the immigration system and keep those jobs here.

Solutions are tough. That's why reform has been so elusive.

But we can't afford the status quo. Our broken immigration system is too expensive to maintain.