Our citizenry and its elected representatives must come to grips with the fact that our country has a broken immigration structure. Continuing to turn a blind eye towards badly needed reforms does not benefit undocumented workers, employers or even consumers. Ultimately, food safety, national security and our nation's economy hang in the balance.

There are 11 million undocumented workers or 1 in 26 among us who crossed our borders to obtain employment. Those numbers are down from the peak influx at the turn of the century. Since 2005, net border crossings to and from Mexico and other Hispanic countries has been nearly even. This stabilization also makes the timing right for action.

That may be easier said than done. Even if both parties and the President agree that immigration deserves action, overcoming the politically charged question of how to handle undocumented workers will take political compromise that we haven't witnessed in some time.

The stakes are quite high. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, an estimated 1.5 million work in agriculture. They are employed because they are willing to do farm work and most want as many hours as possible. As a result, other Americans have good paying jobs in processing, transportation, marketing and related sectors that would evaporate if food went unharvested. That doesn't benefit our nation's food security or its economy.

It is time to completely rewrite immigration law. That includes beefing up our borders, easing entry for skilled workers from technology trades as well as those with agricultural expertise. It must also provide a pathway to document the 11 million or so people already here without official paperwork. That should include a pathway to obtain a work visa or even a way to earn citizenship for those who pass background checks and pay back taxes and fines.

Finally, employers deserve a much better structure to verify employment status. The government's current system of audits, fines and deportations does nothing to resolve this long-standing problem. Those actions further drive undocumented workers deeper into the shadows of our society and leaves them unprotected.

America is a nation built by immigrants and it has made us vibrant and exceptional. America still needs immigrants with varying degrees of skills to continue to grow and prosper. With the national elections behind us, we again have a one-year window to address the long-standing issue before political rhetoric cripples dialogue.

This Hoard's Dairyman editorial appears on page 96 of the February 10, 2013 issue.