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Immigration Reform Would Support Employment in Rural Communities

Michael Lipsky

Talking points about immigration reform often focus on whether undocumented workers are taking jobs away from Americans who need the work. A story in the Toledo Blade yesterday draws attention to the cost to other American workers of failing to fix the immigration problem.  

In northern Ohio a large tomato grower is shutting down production because it can’t find the workforce to pick the crop. Problems include not only a dearth of migrant workers, but those who might sign up for the rigorous field work are reluctant to do so for fear of harassment by local law enforcement officials. Other growers are following suit.  

According to Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee based in Toledo, the 500 workers who will no longer pick for Charles Jones Produce would have earned $2.6 million. The closure will depress the economy of rural Northern Ohio, as farm workers no longer patronize local stores, restaurants, gas stations and other enterprises.   

The situation is not unique to Northern Ohio.  Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), reports that many other fruit and vegetable growers will also close their operations this summer, forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars. The NCFC estimates that each farm worker’s wages supports two to three other local jobs.

Farm workers have long been neglected workers in the American labor system. Like housekeepers, homecare attendants and others who work in environments typically occupied by people of color, farm workers have not historically received the labor force protections accorded other occupations.  Their wages are seasonal and low—poverty rates are more than twice as high as those of other wage workers.   

Yet every worker occupies a niche in the economic fabric.  The economic cost to rural communities that cannot get their tomatoes picked is no different than the cost to New England communities when their furniture factories moved South as their owners sought to exploit the lower wages they could pay there.

From human rights to securing the necessary manpower to sustain economic growth, there are many reasons to support immigration reform.  Add to the list continuing support for hard-pressed rural economies.