Hispanic immigrants make up roughly half of the workforce at Peter Scarff’s family nursery and landscaping business in New Carlisle, Ohio. Without immigrant labor, the agriculture and service industries in the United States would collapse, Scarff says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s manual work or operating equipment, it is difficult to find people willing to work,” he says. “I hear the same from other local businesses. So people have their heads in the sand if they don’t see how vital immigrants are.”
The Scarff family began working the land in New Carlisle in 1881. Five generations later, they manage 500 acres of trees, shrubs, and evergreens. During the busiest times of the year, 55 employees work at the nursery and in the company’s landscaping business. Of these, 30 are Hispanic immigrants. “They are Latinos who’ve lived and worked here with us for quite a while,” Scarff says. And their contributions are significant — not just to Scarff, but to the state and the nation. An analysis of U.S. Census data by New American Economy found that nationally immigrants make up close to one in three workers in the landscaping services industry. In some states, such as California, the figure is far higher, reaching 63.2 percent.
Agriculture, the service industries — restaurants, hotels, tourism — they would all collapse without immigrants.
For this reason, Scarff has spent more than 20 years advocating for immigration reform through the American Nursery and Landscape Association, now AmericanHort. He says that something needs to be done about undocumented workers. “It is unrealistic to send them back after all this time. We have to create a sensible and safe path to permanency,” he says.
It would be hypocritical, he believes, to turn these people away now. Yes, undocumented immigrants entered the country illegally. But when the economy was strong, the United States needed labor and so “we stood at the border with the door open and our backs to the door,” he says.
The $76 billion landscaping industry is the largest user of the H-2B visa program, which allows employers outside of agriculture to hire non-immigrant, seasonal, foreign guest workers. But the government issues only 66,000 of the visas annually, leaving employers in many industries without the workers they need to operate their businesses. Many U.S.-born workers, they say, simply don’t apply for the jobs, which typically require working odd or long hours, often in harsh weather, and only for one or two seasons of the year.
Scarff believes that many people are unaware of, or do not want to admit, how much of the national economy is reliant upon immigrant labor. For example, in Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District, where Scarff lives, immigrants paid $207.3 million in taxes in 2014 and held spending power of $564.5 million. “Agriculture, the service industries — restaurants, hotels, tourism — they would all collapse without immigrants,” he says.