- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

MISSION, Texas (AP) - Agricultural leaders from states far from the U.S.-Mexico border visited Texas on Wednesday and said they are more convinced than ever of the need for immigration reform after a tour of border security operations in the Rio Grande Valley.

The eight state agriculture commissioners who joined Texas Commissioner Todd Staples at a Border Patrol station a mile from the Rio Grande in South Texas often think about immigration in terms of ensuring a reliable workforce for farmers and poultry processing plants. But standing behind glass above a warren of holding cells packed well beyond capacity with 1,000 immigrants afforded a very different perspective, they said.

The bipartisan delegation said a new guest worker program would provide American farms and businesses the legal workers they need and also improve border security.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan came to Texas believing the border could be secured, but he said the visit changed his opinion.

“It’s such an overwhelming thing that I’m not sure we can totally secure the border, but a viable guest worker program would help with the whole situation,” McMillan said.

Alabama was one of the states that passed laws in recent years that aimed to effectively drive immigrants living in the country illegally out of the state. A settlement with the federal government stripped away the harshest provisions, but McMillan said it still resulted in many farmers cutting back the number of acres they planted because they weren’t sure they could find the workers necessary to harvest crops.

Staples, who made border security a central campaign theme in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, said he invited his counterparts from the U.S. interior to see the border so they would go back and push for immigration reform.

The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last year that would have bolstered border security, remade legal worker programs and offered a path to citizenship to the estimated 11.5 million people now living in the United States illegally. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have refused to move forward on immigration reform without first securing the border.

But border security can be substantially enhanced through reforming the guest worker program “because then our law enforcement would have so fewer people to have to intercept,” Staples said after cruising the Rio Grande aboard a Department of Public Safety gunboat.

The Rio Grande Valley surpassed the Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona, sector last year for the most arrests on the Southwest border. The agency is scrambling to keep up with the flow by bringing in agents from elsewhere, flying immigrants to other sectors for processing and dropping others at bus stations with notices to appear before a judge later.

This sector has recorded more than 130,000 arrests since Oct. 1, an increase of about 67 percent from this time last year. The sector made more than 154,000 arrests for all of the prior fiscal year.

The commissioners said Border Patrol officials told them Wednesday that agents had arrested about 1,400 immigrants just the previous night.

Several commissioners commented about seeing so many teenagers and young mothers holding diaper-clad infants at the Border Patrol station Wednesday morning.

“It’s given me this whole new perspective on the humanitarian part of this,” said Ed Kee, Delaware’s secretary of agriculture. “I’ve heard and I’ve talked to people from Guatemala who end up in Delaware, and you say ‘How do you get there?’ and they walk, and they ride and whatever they can do.

“But coming down here and really seeing it and seeing teenagers that have made that journey and now they’re here. … They’ll either go back or somehow they’ll go forward.”

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