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Ohio farms tout new reforms on immigration law
Ohio Correspondent

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Imagine a crowded produce market in Cleveland with a variety of products for sale by Ohio farmers. Now, imagine that a single apple cost $5 and that cauliflower sold for $10.

That was just the scene at the West Side Market fruit and vegetable stalls as Ohio farmers and nurserymen gathered to call for comprehensive immigration reform. As the U.S. Senate debates the issue, these producers are trying to bring the impact of this issue to light, both in Ohio and on the national stage.

They are calling for legislation or protect Ohio farmers, the U.S. food supply and the labor needed to keep Ohio farms strong and food prices affordable.

“Border protection without a workforce solution would be catastrophic for Ohio agricultural and food prices,” said Karl Losely, president Herman Losely and Son of Perry, Ohio and president of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Assoc. (ONLA). “Congress can and must deal with these problems simultaneously.”

The farms and nurserymen set up a farm stand at the West Side market where they handed out produce and plants with inflated prices to demonstrate the potentially enormous price increases likely to occur if agricultural workers were not available to family farms.

“We want Ohioans to know what they stand to lose,” said Tom Demaline, president of Avon-based Willoway Nurseries, who appeared on CNN and was interviewed by USA Today as part of the ONLA awareness campaign.

“America needs to secure its borders, but we should not bankrupt thousands of American farmers and force the U.S. to import most of its produce. We’d be outsourcing farm jobs and endangering the food supply.”

Demaline and his sister, Cathy Kowalczyk, have grown the small landscaping company their father founded in 1954 to one of the largest nursery operations in the Midwest, with 800 acres in production and 1,500 varieties of plants sold to landscapers and garden centers from Iowa to Maine.

Of the 350 employees they hire to work their busy season of March through December, 271 are Mexican nationals with visas from a “guest worker” program.

The Bush Administration is pushing the first overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in more than a decade. With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants nationwide, Bush hopes to legally expand opportunities for foreigners to take jobs Americans don’t want in an effort to stem the tide of black market, illegal labor.

Leaders in the Republican Party; however, have refused to take up Bush’s guest worker proposal, focusing instead on enforcement.

“Millions of American workers, in all sectors of the labor market, have seen their jobs and wages undercut by the phenomenon of mass illegal immigration,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigra-tion Reform, which favors tighter immigration laws and believes America’s open door drains its economy.

“A bill that allows employers to bring in millions more foreign workers through a vastly expanded guest worker program will only exacerbate the plight of middle class workers in America.”

Demaline said he had trouble getting Americans to do the hard, dirty seasonal jobs he was offering at $9.21 an hour and was concerned he might have to sell his nursery. He credits his Mexican workforce with saving his business.

The guest worker visa program used to admit seasonal farm workers, such at those at Willoway, admitted 22,000 workers in 2004, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

These workers are among the more than 800,000 crop workers, only 47 percent of whom are legally authorized to work in the United States, according to the Labor Department.

Growers who use the legal guest worker program say it is cumbersome to obtain worker visas, which must be certified by the Labor Department, immigration services and the State Department before foreign workers can be admitted to the county - and this process, growers say, is part of why the program is not used much.

The Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, of which ONLA is a member, supports increased border security but wants to ensure that immigration legislation does not leave U.S. farms behind. It proposes overhauling the H-2A temporary and seasonal alien agricultural worker program to allow trained and trusted farm workers a chance to earn legal status.

“We’re not talking about amnesty or allowing foreigners to take advantage of our welfare system,” said Jeff Zellers, first vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “We’re talking about plugging holes in our borders and at the same time protecting U.S. farmers and consumers. In fact, we don’t think you can succeed at one without the other.”

This farm news was published in the April 12, 2006 issue of Farm World.