SALEM, Ohio — As the nation continues to battle the humanitarian crisis along its southern border, a diverse group of farmers and business leaders continues to plead for reform that would grant U.S. farmers easier access to immigrant labor.
On July 9, a national group that included Ohio farmers and business leaders, took part in the National Day of Action for Immigration Reform — an effort to remind Washington lawmakers and the media about the importance of immigrant labor at U.S. farms.
The battle in Washington has been tense in recent weeks — the president threatening executive action over the House’s inaction, and House Speaker John Boehner threatening to sue the president, for overstepping presidential powers.
However, there is a strong consensus about what should be done, according to organizers with National Day of Action, who released an opinion poll showing widespread support for reform.
According to the poll, sponsored by the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, 81 percent of voters want Congress to act this year, with more than half calling it “very important” they act this year.
The poll also found that by a 12 to 1 ratio, voters believe the system is in need of fixing versus those who think the system is functioning the way it should.
Action Day spokesman Tyler Glick said the poll shows a “strong consensus support for reform,” and that the nation needs a “permanent and meaningful fix to the issue.”
Bill Dodd, who operates Dodd’s Hillcrest Orchards in Amherst, Ohio, said farm owners like himself rely on immigrant labor to stay in business. They check their workers’ documents the best they can, but “we know in the back of our mind that many of our workers are not documented.”
Dodd and other farmers say they want to see immigrants be granted the documentation to work here legally.
“Ideally we would like to have comprehensive immigration passed,” he said. “(But) we’re open to anything that moves the ball forward.”
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Farmers have long complained that the current guest worker programs are too cumbersome and inefficient. Under the H-2A visa program, it can take a month or more for a farmer to receive the workers he requests.
Bob Lyons, who owns Sunleaf Nursery in Madison, Ohio, called the H-2A program “almost completely unworkable.”
One of his concerns is the recent growth in the economy, which is creating new demand for labor and food production.
“We’ve been working on this issue for a long, long time,” he said. “We’re convinced that we’ve got to do something.”
Steve Hirsch, president of Ohio Farm Bureau, said “domestic workers are unwilling” to do the work immigrants will do.
Compensation varies among farms, but is mandated to be high enough that it does not adversely effect the wages of U.S. Citizens. Many are paid above minimum wage, and also earn production incentives.
Without a dependable workforce, “our farms and ranches less competitive,” Hirsch said.
Immigration reform has been a priority issue for farmers for many years — and becomes as bigger issue as world population and demand for food grow. Today, about 11 million undocumented people are said to be living in the United States.
In June of 2013, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provided a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country, while strengthening the border and providing new worker visa programs for immigrants wanting to work on farms.
But the comprehensive approach was mostly ignored by the U.S. House, which instead opted for a piecemeal approach, pledging to resolve the issues one at a time.
In January of 2014, it appeared the House might be poised for a big year on immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released his “principles on immigration reform,” but seemed to take a step backward about a week later, when he announced the House would most likely not vote on reform this year.
The National Day of Action included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Partnership for a New American Economy, American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, AmericanHort, Western Growers, and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Members held events in Washington, D.C. and in more than 60 congressional districts across 25 states.