Agriculture in Ohio and Michigan would be crippled without the labor of immigrant workers — particularly undocumented immigrants, who make up 70 percent of the work force on farms and do the work no one else wants to do.
An estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants work in Ohio — 0.9 percent of the total work force. The number in Michigan is 150,000, about 2 percent of the work force. Without these workers, agriculture in the two states breaks down.
Indeed, there are not enough workers now. Last year, a record number of fresh fruits and vegetables went unharvested in the two states. This week, northwest Ohio’s largest fresh-market tomato producer said it is shutting operations because it cannot attract enough migrant workers to harvest its crops.
We need immigrants to sustain independent American agriculture. Without them, we will depend on foreign suppliers for food, as we do now for our fuel.
Most members of Congress, and a vast majority of Americans as measured by polling data, agree that the nation’s immigration system needs to be fixed. That includes three things: better control of the nation’s borders, a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here, and full rights of citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who were born in this country.
The “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, meticulously constructed over the past year by a bipartisan group of senators, is on the Senate floor. But not much is happening. One amendment has been voted down. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) wants a vote on the bill by July 4 and is threatening to make the Senate work the next two weekends.
Republicans are trying to slow the bill’s momentum, because time almost always hurts a bill in the Senate (see: gun control). Democrats are trying to win Republican converts. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is considered a key swing vote.
Even if he is not enthusiastic about the bill’s pathway to citizenship, Senator Portman understands Ohio agriculture. A vote against reform would cripple our farmers and hurt Ohio consumers.
The Republican-controlled House, which has a smaller share of moderate and pro-immigration votes than the Senate, is a bigger problem. A proposed House bill demands an impossible level of “border security” and offers no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
What happens on the House floor and with a possible House-Senate compromise will depend largely on another Ohioan: House Speaker John Boehner. Sadly, almost every time the speaker has had a chance to make a difference on a great issue, he has punted. He seems to be the prisoner of his party’s right wing.
Senator Portman and Speaker Boehner have a chance to move the nation forward on immigration reform. These leaders, and all other lawmakers, should back reform for two reasons: First, it’s who we are as Americans. Second, without it American farms shut down and our grocery bills go up. Republicans should not be permitted to kill reform by running out the clock.