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Ohio County Commissioner Doesn’t Shy Away from Talking Immigration

Tom Dunlap spent 18 years in the Huron County Sheriff’s office, including four years as Sheriff. In that time, he encountered almost no trouble from the county’s Hispanic residents. “Over the years, many of the migrant farm workers in the muck farm area have stayed and grown roots,” he says. “The talk around the county seems to always focus on how rough and terrible that area is because of the Hispanics. But our jail population didn’t come close to representing the Hispanic population. It always bothered me.”

Dunlap, who serves the Huron County Commissioner, is currently running for the Ohio House of Representatives, representing the 57th district. Whereas other politicians may shy away from talking about immigration, Dunlap says he’s vocal on the issue. For one thing, he’s seen the vital economic impact that immigrants make to the farms in his region. “Agriculture is probably our number-one industry in the county,” he says. Which means it’s not simply the farms that rely on a strong labor supply, but the health of the county as a whole. Immigration policies have made labor shortage a real problem, though. “I’ve talked to several farmers who are stretched for manpower,” says Dunlap. “They’re having a terrible time getting the product out of the field.”

Dunlap says the red tape and expense of the migrant worker program creates an unnecessary burden on farmers, as well as on their employees. The migrant workforce “should be allowed to travel freely back and forth across the border without fear of repercussions. People who want to grow roots here should have a streamlined application process that’s not cost prohibitive.” A pathway to citizenship, he says, would allow them to be a more powerful economic force in a rural area that could use a population bump. “The biggest town [in the county] is Norwalk with just under 16,000 people. Willard has around 8,000,” he says.

Dunlap has also seen the consequences of our broken immigration system up close. Over the two decades that he taught criminal justice at the EHOVE (Erie, Huron, Ottawa Vocational Education) Career Center, his immigrant students left a lasting impact. One Iraqi student was stigmatized for being an Arab, despite having served for many years in the U.S. military. Three of Dunlap’s Hispanic students were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. “They lived in America their whole lives, and I couldn’t get them a job or get them into college because I couldn’t get them a social security number.”

Talking about this today, Dunlap’s frustration is palpable. “You don’t know how many phone calls I made,” he said. “I felt so helpless.” And yet Dunlap says that these young people—“these bright young minds”—are the ones who are truly struggling. One of his students had a fake social security number and was using it to work so she could afford her basic living expenses. “She was actually perpetuating a crime just to make a living,” Dunlap says. “How’s she ever going to get ahead?”

Dunlap has made it his mission to talk candidly about the need for immigration reform. “It requires education,” he says. “Most people are good people but are misinformed, and as a result, they’re fearful.” He wants to remind his fellow citizens that America is a melting pot: We’ve arrived here from across the globe and mixed and mingled over the generations.

This story appears as part of the Partnership for a New American Economy’s Reason for Reform campaign, which features hundreds of stories from individuals around the country sharing their reasons for immigration reform. To give your reason, learn more about the project here.

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