AVON PARK, Fla. – Spend a few minutes talking to Joe Wright near the vast open fields of his dairy farm, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s a staunch Republican.
The list of federal and state programs he would end, given a chance, is considerable: food stamps, subsidized housing, free school lunches, unemployment insurance.
But Wright, who owns the 1,300-acre V&W Farms here and is president of the 300-farm Southeast Milk Cooperative, says he’s about ready to leave the Republican Party if it doesn’t push hard for immigration reform this year.
“This is an issue where the conservative Republicans are just plain wrong,” he said recently as a steady trail of 1,500-pound Jersey-Holstein crossbreeds plodded toward the milking parlor, bellowing on their way. “We cannot milk cows without Hispanic labor, period.”
Business owners like Wright have emerged as a significant force in negotiations over immigration reform this year, reaching an important agreement with labor groups last week about how to ensure workers continue coming into the U.S. This issue was one of many stumbling blocks in the 2007 debate over immigration reform, and may indicate that business is ready to support reform more vocally.
“There’s no question that businesses are going to be more out there — everyone from the big guys to the little guys,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and chief executive of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of state-based pro-immigration coalitions. “Business has learned over these past five, six, seven years more and more that it needs to engage.”
To be sure, more outspoken businesses doesn’t necessarily mean reform will come more easily.
Businesses still have to find a way to agree with labor on the details, and different types of businesses want different bills.
Many in agriculture favor a guest worker program that allows farmers to hire migrant workers with minimal red tape, while technology companies want a way for high-skilled foreign workers to stay in the United States. Hotels and restaurants, as well as dairy farmers such as Wright, want a year-round labor supply to fill undesirable jobs.
Wright says it will be much harder to operate his farm if Congress doesn’t pass an immigration overhaul. The work is dirty: herding cows at dawn; milking 144 an hour with the help of machines; giving them shots; sticking a hand into a cow to check whether she is pregnant, while she defecates on you.
And though the job comes with housing, it calls upon employees to be available at all hours should a cow get sick or go into labor.
Americans don’t apply for the jobs, he said, even though they can earn $10 or more an hour. One year he was so short of labor that he got foreign veterinary students from Croatia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe to help him run the farm.
“I hired an Anglo once,” Wright said, watching as two Latino workers moved quickly down an aisle of cows, hooking milking devices to their udders. “He made it 30 days, but he didn’t make it 60.”
For many businesses, the stakes are higher this time around, as they see states adopt stricter immigration policies and vow to make mandatory e-Verify, a government program that allows employers to check a worker’s status.
In Georgia, where the state Legislature passed a measure in 2011 requiring police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects, growers lost 40 percent of crops because farmers didn’t have the labor to harvest them, said Charles Hall, executive director of the state’s Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
In Arizona, where the passage of a similar measure, S.B. 1070, drew national attention in 2010, some construction companies can no longer find enough workers because so many Latinos have left the state, said Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.
Many businesses have formed advocacy groups in response to these laws, but having them as such active players in the pro-reform coalition also gives rise to friction.
“Business can play an important function and likely will, but their inclusion in the coalition creates a lot of tension,” said Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration. “Will the coalition hold together and be large enough to overcome opposition? I don’t know.”
Labor wants both undocumented immigrants and legal guest workers to eventually have a path to citizenship. But business owners say that if migrant workers become U.S. citizens right away, they’ll leave the low-paying and grueling jobs at farms and restaurants.
“One of the areas of most concern in immigration reform is whether business and labor can both get on board on a proposal for future flow,” said Madeleine Sumption, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The fact that they’re still at the table and able to come up with these proposals is very encouraging.”
Having business owners involved in negotiations might also help quiet some of the opposition that contributed to the derailment of immigration reform in 2007, when anti-immigration callers overwhelmed and shut down the Senate switchboard.
“In order to get the votes we need, we have to think about who can move House Republicans — and business is a big part of that,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which brings together different factions on immigration, including business and labor.
Business owners are also often influential community leaders who, from firsthand experience with immigrants, can help explain to neighbors the benefits of immigration reform.
“On a local level, who is a voter going to believe?” Noorani said. “Their local business owner, their pastor and their police chief.”
In 2006, the mayor of Wright’s hometown of Avon Park made headlines when he proposed strict measures to root out undocumented immigrants from the small Florida city. He wanted to fine landlords $1,000 for renting to them, deny business permits to companies that knowingly hired them, and remove Spanish from all city documents and phone messages.
The proposal enraged Wright, who has been hiring immigrants for two decades. He began to speak up against the bill, as did other local business owners. The City Council, which originally voted 3 to 2 in support of the bill, reversed itself after business owners became more vocal.
“We had people screaming over illegal immigration, but they didn’t have a clue over how their own lifestyle was dependent on these immigrants for food and hospitality,” said Wright, who remembers trying to patiently explain the issues to his neighbors. “The people complaining seemed to be totally out of touch with how our Florida economy works.”George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/McClatchy Newspapers
Worker Jorge Santiago washes down milking stalls between herds at Joe Wright’s dairy farm in Zolfo Springs, Fla. Wright says he couldn’t run his farm without immigrant labor.