And if Congress doesn't overhaul immigration, farmers will assist the federal government in helping states create programs that give growers access to enough legal labor, under a policy approved at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The policy retains the Farm Bureau's long-held view that immigration policy should be set by the federal government.
"So far, all of these state programs have been on enforcement only," said David Winkles, president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau, whose members proposed the policy. "They don't address the fact that we don't have an adequate labor supply in agriculture."
In recent years, some state governments have passed laws attempting to crack down on illegal immigrants. A new wave of legislation is expected this year as politicians consider measures similar to a law passed in Arizona. Among other steps, the Arizona statute requires that police question the immigration status of people they have reason to suspect are in the country illegally.
President Barack Obama's administration has challenged that law in court, and a judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of several of its provisions.
Farmers rely on seasonal laborers, including many illegal immigrants, to harvest labor-intensive crops such as strawberries, onions, peaches and tobacco. The agriculture lobbying group says Americans refuse to take the difficult, low-paying jobs.
The federal government has a guest-worker program for agriculture workers, but farmers say it's expensive to use and inflexible.
"If a state can venture into the arenas of enforcing immigration, then they can venture in the arena of granting temporary legal status," Winkles said.
The debate over immigration policy reflected the delegates' regional concerns. They also voiced support for a secure border. Texas representatives supported modifying the immigration proposal so it ultimately supported the right of state governments to help enforce immigration law and border security.
Raymond Meyer, a state director who represents ranchers and farmers south of San Antonio, said drug runners in his border region will drive heavy duty trucks through rural land when they are forced off highways. That puts ranchers and farmworkers at risk, he said.
Meyer said he prefers that Congress set immigration and border policy, but added that his farmers have immediate security needs.
"We have, naturally, Border Patrol, but it's more than they can handle," he said.
Paul Schlegel, a Farm Bureau lobbyist who monitors immigration issues, said he was not sure the latest proposal would translate into new legislation. His organization has argued for an overhaul of immigration law.
"It helps to keep up the political pressure on federal legislators to do what everybody wants them to do, which is to get a solution to this problem," he said.
In other moves, the Farm Bureau delegates:
— Said keeping direct payments, crop insurance, countercyclical payments and the Average Crop Revene Election program will be priorities in the next Farm Bill, which sets federal funding for agriculture.
— Backed discussing a temporary supply management program for the dairy industry.
— Urged Congress to conduct oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency, which they accused of burdening farmers and ranchers. The Farm Bureau opposes the agency's moves to regulate greenhouse gases.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.