Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

April 17, 2013

Immigration reform bill gains support in state

FRANKFORT — Maybe most Kentuckians think immigration reform is important in California or Arizona but won’t have that much impact on the Bluegrass State.

H.H. Barlow, a Barren County dairy farmer, says that isn’t the case.

“Immigrant labor is absolutely essential to agriculture in Kentucky,” said Barlow, who operates a 130-cow dairy farm near Cave City. “It has a major economic impact on Kentucky and on the $5 billion agriculture economy.”

Barlow was part of a teleconference Wednesday after the so-called Gang of Eight U.S. Senators introduced a bipartisan bill on immigration reform. The bill calls for strengthened border security and provides a tough 10-year process toward gaining citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country.

It also provides for a new category of Registered Provisional Immigrants and requires employers to track the status of those they hire.

It was cobbled together by a group of senators from both sides of the aisle, led by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mark Rubio of Florida.

While the measure — or the outlines of the 844-page bill which have been made public — has drawn some criticism from both those seeking a more liberal policy and those demanding more border security and a tougher line on “amnesty,” the initial reactions Wednesday seemed positive.

Glen Krebs, a Lexington attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs who represents corporate clients seeking to obtain visas for foreign workers, said he is “very optimistic” about both the substance of the bill and its prospects in the U.S. Congress.

He said the bill would dramatically increase the number of H1-B visas for skilled immigrant workers and simplify the application process.

Nima Kulkarni, a Louisville immigration attorney, said the legislation would essentially double green cards for workers which will have a positive impact on the overall economy.

“The lack of reform has harmed our economy and at the same time treated immigrants unfairly,” she said.

Especially the farm economy, Barlow said, adding the general population isn’t always aware of how important immigrant labor is to Kentucky farmers.

“It’s very difficult for me to hire American labor,” Barlow said, recounting the time he advertised for help in his local paper, The Glasgow Daily Times. Barlow said the ad produced 24 calls from which his wife set up four interviews.

“Not one of them showed up for the interview,” Barlow said.

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, he said, the immigrant laborers he employs provide highly satisfactory work.

“They’ve got a great work ethic,” Barlow said. “It’s really been a pleasure for me to be around them”

Mark Haney, president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau who manages an orchard, livestock and tourist operation at Nancy in Pulaski County, said KFB supports the legislation.

“We are enthusiastically for it,” Haney said. “In the agriculture economy, no one else seeks those jobs anymore. They just won’t show up at the farm.”

Haney said KFB worked with the American Farm Bureau which participated in negotiations in Washington as the bill was cobbled together. He said Farm Bureau support was tied to provisions to make it easier for the agriculture community to hire immigrant labor.

Haney said the seasonal demands of agricultural jobs makes it difficult to hire local labor, much of which in the past came from family or neighbors or high school students. But those days and that culture don’t exist anymore.

Barlow and Haney are both registered Republicans and both have lobbied Kentucky’s two U.S. Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, to support the legislation.

Paul, who has said he is exploring a 2016 run for President, has recently endorsed at least some form of immigration reform as his party attempts to reach out to Hispanic voters. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost badly among those groups in his unsuccessful race against Democratic President Barack Obama.

But some on the right, and often those who identify themselves as members of the tea party, have been reluctant to accept fast or easy pathways to citizenship for the undocumented, calling such proposals “amnesty.” They also usually support much tighter border security.

Barlow said Paul has been sympathetic, while he said McConnell “is very aware about this issue and he’s interested in how important it is to Kentucky.”

Krebs, the Lexington attorney, said he met with McConnell’s staff who told him McConnell hopes for “a very robust debate,” rather than a quick trip through committees in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But McConnell hasn’t said if he’ll support the measure.

McConnell issued a statement Wednesday on the bill through his Washington press office, saying he appreciates the work done by the bipartisan group of senators.

“But in order for any reform to be successful, congressional committees will need adequate time to review it and write legislation through regular order,” McConnell said. “And all members must have an opportunity to debate and amend any legislation that comes to the floor.”

Former Republican Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, now the director of the Harvard Institute on Politics, said the reform also addresses the need for more visas for foreign students who are educated in American universities but take their skills back home when they can’t obtain visas upon graduation.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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