HARRISBURG, Pa. — Immigration is a complicated and emotional issue for farmers and many other Americans. U.S. employers want quality workers to pick fruit, milk cows, develop software and build homes.
Congress is currently looking for a better way to control which foreigners are in the country while humanely dealing with the ones who are already here illegally.
Stakeholders from agriculture and other sectors talked about ways to improve the immigration system during a Dec. 6 panel discussion at the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Farming is one of several economic sectors that would benefit from changes to the nation’s immigration policies, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown, said.
“We will have to import food at some point if we don’t get this right,” he said.
Across all sectors, more than 600,000 jobs went unfilled even during the recession’s worst times of unemployment. That disparity suggests a need for quality foreign workers to compete globally, he said.
Dent said the government needs to both make it easier for people to enter the country and be more effective at making sure people do not overstay their visas.
“People will find their way to this country,” so the system should not be so cumbersome that people feel their only chance at immigrating is to avoid the system, he said.
“I found out when I was 16 I was undocumented,” said Audrey Lopez Valdivia, a Peruvian immigrant who helps people with citizenship issues at Church World Service in Lancaster.
She made the discovery when she had difficulty applying to Pennsylvania colleges and did not have a Social Security number.
The indications that something was wrong had been there since the first day of middle school, she said. Her parents told her they would probably not be around when she got home because they both worked multiple jobs, but she was to lock the door and not open it to anyone.
“If there happens to be a police officer across that door, you run and hide,” they told her.
Lopez’s parents came to the United States illegally when she was a 12-year-old child, making her eligible for a two-year reprieve from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The program was created in 2012 by order of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after President Barack Obama’s omnibus immigration bill authorizing the program failed in Congress.
Though Lopez has only been granted two years, she said she wants a way to stay in the United States rather than start over again in a country she has not seen in years.
“I often hear, You’re criminals. You’re not here legally,’ ” she said.
Still, she can’t see her parents as lawbreakers. “Your crime was to give me a better life,” she said of them.
Some people applying to immigrate to the United States for the first time may take umbrage at being put behind people who came to the country illegally, but children deserve special treatment, Dent said.
For now, most young people like Lopez who have received a deportation deferral are still scared of talking about their situation publicly. Only two of 50 people in one group were willing to speak because immigration officials could still deport their family members who were not granted deferral, she said.
Lopez said she is willing to pay the fees and taxes, and wait the required years if it will make her a legal American.
“I have been waiting half of my life,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “I will gladly take it, even if it means having to pay everything.”
Joe Devoy, who runs ARA Construction Corp. and Tellus360, a company that operates a music venue and manufactures furniture, sympathized with Lopez’s plight. As an immigrant from Ireland, and now a longtime U.S. citizen, he found that immigration policy was structured in favor of his people of his country.
If his visa had expired, Devoy said he would have stayed illegally in the U.S. rather than go back to Ireland.
“The families that we have working for us become like family, so I can appreciate (Lopez’s) sentiment,” said Tony Brubaker, a partner at Brubaker Farms in Mount Joy and president of the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania.
The Brubakers employ a mix of US- and foreign-born workers.
Brubaker supports changing the agricultural worker visa duration to no shorter than three years. It takes a year of training and experience to make a good employee, but the current agricultural visas send foreigners to their home country every year to apply for renewal.
“As a good employer, I would probably foot the bill” for that leave-and-return process because good employees are that valuable, Brubaker said. Still, he would rather have a more efficient system.
Brubaker started hiring guest workers about 13 years ago when he could no longer find quality local people willing to do farm work.
“I’d put an ad in the paper where before I’d get 20 applications, I’d get three, and those three (people) have worked at every farm within 10 miles of me,” he said.
Tech companies are facing similar hiring challenges as the dairy industry, said David Bosnick, president and CEO of the Technology Council of Pennsylvania.
“Today there is a significant shortage” of people in the state with advanced technical skills, he said. “It’s an issue of global competitiveness.”
The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill this summer, but Dent said he prefers the House’s approach.
“I think you deal with this in digestible bits,” he said.
He would like to see separate bills for each issue like border security, agriculture, children of immigrants, and employer verification. Breaking down the issue into smaller, understandable pieces will make it easier to build coalitions of supporters, he said.
“Washington does not have a good track record right now with large, comprehensive bills” such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank banking law, Dent said.
The House will be able to pass many of the individual immigration bills before the 2014 election, he said.
Dent rejected the idea of deporting all of the estimated 13 million illegal aliens in the country.
“I do not believe that is practical,” he said. “Think about trying to deport almost the entire population of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Dent said voters are justifiably wary of immigration legislation. He does not want a repeat of the 1986 immigration reform that gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants but never got around to border security or work-site enforcement.
Dent estimated that his staff spends a third of its time on immigration issues, though not all because of farmworkers. Dent’s district is home to the most Syrians of any congressional district, and Syria is in the midst of a civil war.
The panelists worked to dispel negative perceptions about immigrants as welfare abusers and criminals.
“The goal is self-sufficiency in this country. Every immigrant knows that,” Lopez said. She said she would not take welfare because that is only a temporary aid for the poorest immigrants.
Though many people fear immigrants are taking U.S. jobs, “that’s simply not the case,” Bonsick, the technology representative, said.
Many immigrants work extremely hard and find their desire for citizenship stymied by government regulations, Dent said.
Still, there are 150,000 immigrants who have been convicted of crimes like murder and selling illegal drugs who are supposed to be deported, he said.
“Their countries won’t take them back,” and foreign criminals cannot be held indefinitely, he said.
“There are certain people that are going to have to be deported, let’s face it,” Dent said, mentioning human smugglers, drug dealers and others.
Having alien criminals serve their sentences in the United States and then be deported has worked better at reducing their re-entrances to the U.S. than simply kicking out the lawbreakers, Dent said.
The question is where to draw the line, he said. For example, should someone with multiple DUIs have to go?
Even farmers who employ immigrants can get in trouble if enforcement officials find faked paperwork the farmers did not catch.
Brubaker said his dairy keeps an immigration lawyer on retainer.
“I want to be doing things right, and I want my employees to be doing things right,” he said.
After the meeting, Brubaker said that it is hard to gauge what nonfarmers think about immigration’s connection to agriculture. Better education in schools about agriculture’s benefits — and better-than-median wages — might change U.S. youths’ perceptions about farming being a job they don’t want.
Still, a worker’s aptitude, not nationality, is what counts to an employer, he said.
“We’re open to anyone who’s able and willing to do the job,” he said.