Editorial: Immigration law reforms must consider our farmers

Monday’s roundtable on the contentious issue of immigration brought a mix of people to Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead. Although advocates for immigration reform were not represented at the forum, which was closed to the public, there were voices inside that are important and should be heeded.

Local law enforcement, including Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley, spoke about gang involvement and the need to establish tactics in our schools to prevent vulnerable young people from being recruited.

To discourage this, Southold police have tripled their presence in local schools, from one officer to three. “The more we have a presence, the better,” Chief Flatley said.

Along with issues such as gangs, drugs and human trafficking, some very important points were made on behalf of our farmers, whose industry is fully dependent on field workers to do the hard labor. Perhaps no industry on the North Fork relies more on immigrant labor than agriculture.

Anyone familiar with the North Fork’s largest farms knows full well that Spanish-speaking immigrants are the heart of their labor force, keeping the bigger farm stands fully stocked. Thus, any changes to the immigration system — which badly needs changing — must take the farming community’s needs into account.

In his remarks, Karl Novak, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said he’s worked with all nationalities during his 40-year farming career and made this very important point: “They’re hardworking, honest people pursuing the American dream, and many of them have achieved it.”

The bureaucracy and red tape of the current visa system make the hiring process cumbersome and time-consuming. LIFB administrative assistant Rob Carpenter called for reform that can be “adaptable to the needs of our different communities without putting additional burdens on our operations with more regulation, time and effort or stipulations that could hurt our business profitability.”

Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the House committee on the judiciary, attended the forum and said that any effort at reform must ensure that the agriculture industry has a viable workforce. He stated the obvious: “Those workers are going to be from other countries. We do not have the workforce in the United States to meet those needs.”

Mr. Goodlatte has co-sponsored an agricultural workforce bill that would replace the current H-2A visa program. While it would require all employers — farmers included — to verify that their workers are in the country legally, new visas under the bill would be good for three years.

This is important, he said, so that farmers can rely on workers staying on the job, but it would also dramatically improve the workers’ lives.

“We need people to be able to be here for extended periods of time but still be guest workers,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “They can come back and forth across the border legally, to visit family.”

For hundreds of farmworkers on the North Fork who have not been able to visit their families in places like Guatemala and Mexico, this bill would be a game-changer.

There was much discussion at the roundtable about gangs on Long Island preying on immigrant families. With some 5,000 unaccompanied minors arriving in Suffolk County since 2014, there are critical issues that must be addressed.

But if the North Fork is to sustain its farms — New York State’s most productive — any needed immigration reforms must keep our farmers in mind.