Bill Dodd, a Republican and leader in Ohio’s apple farming community, is an expert in the apple business. A fourth-generation farmer, he lives on the same 85-acre farm that his great-grandfather bought more than half a century ago. As a farmer and an advocate for farmers, Dodd has watched America’s flawed immigration system create serious problems for himself and his community.
For generations, Dodd operated his farm on a wholesale model. He made a comfortable living supplying apples from his 10,000 trees to grocery store chains. Then in the mid-1990s, as immigration policy grew increasingly strict, Dodd began to struggle. For years he’d relied on migrant workers to harvest his trees, but now the labor wasn’t available. “So we switched to retail, with pick-your-own apples, school field trips, and a seasonal farmers market,” he says. Now, 20 years later, Dodd’s once-robust wholesale business has become “a hobby farm.”
We desperately need immigration reform because what’s at stake is nothing less than the country’s food supply.
Meanwhile, as the former chairman of the board of the U.S. Apple Association (USApple), Dodd has “heard the horror stories” from his fellow farmers about the immigration system. “H-2A applications,”— the visas that bring in seasonal workers — “are rejected for minor clerical problems,” he says. “There are delays in getting workers in a timely manner and in getting paperwork processed. Farmers are buried in the red tape of the whole system.” And yet there’s nothing else these growers can do. “Plain and simple, there are no domestic workers that are willing to harvest our crops at any price, and H-2A, with all its warts, is the only legal game in town.”
It’s an unacceptable situation. “I’ve been on the board of USApple for 10 years and immigration has been the number one priority for longer than that,” he says. “It gives us nightmares and keeps us awake at night when we’re trying to run our businesses.”
Meanwhile, USApple has petitioned Congress year after year to no avail. “At this point, you’re backed into a corner,” says Dodd. “Your choices are: Try to rely on an unstable, possibly illegal, workforce, or deal with the H-2A program. And in many cases you’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in your crop. If you can’t get it harvested, that money just goes down the drain.”
In 2013, Dodd was hopeful that Congress would finally tackle immigration reform. A bill supported by the major farm-growers associations would have created both a new temporary worker program and an earned path to citizenship for 1.5 million undocumented farm workers, as long as the workers passed a background check, paid a fine, and proved they’d paid their full share of taxes. The bill passed in the Senate but failed in the House. “A lot of resources were put toward working that out and unfortunately we missed that little window,” Dodd says.
Dodd believes that most congressmen are sympathetic to farmers, but says they put petty politics above the country’s best interests. “They don’t want to get anything done because somebody might get credit,” he says. We desperately need immigration reform because what’s at stake is nothing less than the country’s food supply, he says: “If we continue to put our food supply in jeopardy, we’ll no longer be the only superpower in the world.”
“When we have to rely on imported food because our laws cause migrant workers to leave — that’s the beginning of the end.”