Comer: Immigration Reform Would Be Huge Boost for Kentucky Farmers

Feb 6, 2013

James Comer says that without immigrant labor, Kentucky's farmers wouldn't have enough workers to harvest their crops.

The chances for some form of comprehensive  immigration reform in the U.S. appear to be growing, with President Obama and a growing number of Congressional leaders saying they're willing to take on the emotional issue.

Any change to how immigrants receive citizenship or permanent legal status would have a big impact on America's farms and livestock operations, which depend heavily on immigrant labor.

WKU Public Radio's Kevin Willis spoke Wednesday with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer about how immigration reform might impact farmers in the Bluegrass State.

Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

Given your personal experience as a farmer in Monroe County and your job as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, what do you make of the national discussions concerning new opportunities for immigrants to earn either citizenship or at least some form of permanent legal status?

"I've talked to Sen. McConnell and Sen. Paul about this issue, and we need immigration reform in the agriculture community in Kentucky. Anyone who drives up and down the road and sees farmers who are growing crops like tobacco, or vegetables, or has a dairy operation--they will see immigrant labor."

"We can't get young people or a lot of Americans to work on the farm anymore. When I was growing up in Monroe County in the 80s, everybody worked on a farm. It didn't matter if your dad was a dentist, like mine, or if your dad worked in a factory--everybody worked side by side on a farm, and there was no shame in it."

"For whatever reason today, we can't find (American-born) farm labor. So these are the only people we can get to harvest a lot of our agricultural crops."

What do you hear from Kentucky farmers in terms of the issues they have in terms of both finding enough workers, but also being put in a position where they don't know about any one given person's immigration status?

"Farmers are so frustrated dealing with this. They're frustrated that they can't find labor within their community. They get up, they work hard, and there aren't many people stirring other than farmers before the sun comes up. We can't find other people willing to work hard, get up early, and do manual labor."

"Farmers try to do things right, but it's difficult to find out when they hire immigrant labor, whether their status is legal or not. It's too difficult, and we need to make it easier for our  agriculture community, and hopefully they can get some kind of resolution in Congress."

You mentioned talking to Senators McConnell and Paul about this issue. Do you hear anything from them or others in Kentucky's federal delegation that leads you to believe real immigration reform might actually happen this year?

"I think we're closer now, because I think a lot of Republicans--and I'm a Republican--see that this is an issue that they probably have to change their mindset on."

"Sen. Paul, actually,  has been talking a lot about it. I know it's an issue that they are going to have to take a position on, one way or another, that doesn't harm the business community."

You can hear WKU Public Radio's interview with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer Wednesday during All Things Considered, at 4:45 p.m. central time, and Thursday on Morning Edition, at 7:35 a.m. central.