Farmers' Fear: A part of the immigration debate hidden in plain sight

Farmers' Fear: A part of the immigration debate hidden in plain sight
(Source: Tucson News Now)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Immigration is a huge issue in southern Arizona.

Amid all the talk and debate, an important group of Arizonans feel their needs are being ignored -- farmers and people in the agriculture industry.

In general, farmers tend to rest on the red side of politics.

Paco Ollerton, a third-generation farmer in Pinal County, is one of those who does. Ollerton believes in strong border security, but said he needs immigrants to work the fields.

"We need a good, reliable labor force," Ollerton said. "We're not talking about immigration reform. We're talking about a worker program."

The vast majority of farm workers are immigrants. It's gotten harder for them to legally come to the U.S. to work on the farms. And figuring out a worker policy has been overshadowed by the gridlock over DACA, the wall, and any new immigration bill.

"I've been out here for 37 years, and back in the day you used to have somebody come by almost on a weekly basis looking for a job. now we're lucky if we see somebody maybe once a year," Ollerton said.

Working in the fields is not a glamorous job. It's tough work. The hours are long and the pay is low. But Ollerton says despite what some people think, farmhands are definitely skilled workers, whether they're doing the picking or using the machines.

"In some cases we got the tractor that's got the GPS guidance and the auto steer system on it, it's going to be a little more skilled than someone flipping burgers in my mind," Ollerton says.

Several farmers Tucson New Now spoke with said when immigrants come to work in the fields, they're not taking jobs from American workers. Americans, in general, have shown no interest in doing the jobs.

Ashley Bickel at the University of Arizona wrote a paper detailing farming's impact on Arizona's economy. The findings - agriculture is the cog in a wheel impacting about 140,000 jobs - and worth $23 billion to our state each year. She says "there's also businesses that are involved in providing inputs or supplies to the agricultural producers. So, they're either supplying seeds or irrigation supplies, farm machinery those kinds of things. Then, there are also businesses that are involved in packing, processing, and distributing agricultural products to consumers like you and me."

The center of farming in Arizona is in Yuma. They have lettuce farms, but cotton, produce, and dairy farms are sprinkled across the state, including in southern Arizona.

If nothing changes politically, Ollerton says there is a worst case scenario. For farmers, and for all of us. "If we don't have the labor help to produce our food products here in the country...we're going to become dependent on third world countries to import all of our groceries, and that's kinda scary," he says.

Any worker program would allow immigrants to come to the U. S. and stay for a year, maybe more, in order to work. Ollerton says most of the workers he's dealt with over the years don't want to stay in the U.S. They want to work for a few years, earn money for their families, and then return to their countries of origin.

Ollerton says he feels some politicians in Washington D.C. might finally be listening, and he's hopeful something might be done this year or next. But he says the industry desperately needs the help, and there's a lot of frustration.

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