- Saluda businessman Hector Ortiz knows exactly what would happen if the town’s foreign-born population was deported or left out of fear. “Without the immigrants to work at the poultry plants, this would become a ghost town,” he says. Ortiz, who runs an insurance company in the town of 3,500, points to other plants in the state that faced huge losses after hundreds of undocumented workers were deported. “They offered incentives and raised the wage,” he says, “but they still couldn’t find enough people willing to do the work. It is tough and dangerous.”
Ortiz, who is originally from Puerto Rico, has lived in South Carolina since 2007. Previously, he worked for a Spanish radio station in Columbia. In 2008, he learned that an insurance agency in Saluda was up for sale, so he bought the business and now has nine bilingual employees serving both immigrant and U.S.-born clients in two offices. The business’s annual revenues are approximately $420,000.
Saluda has been in the news lately because of its fast-growing Hispanic population. In addition to poultry processing, the local economy depends heavily on agriculture, which, in turn, depends on foreign workers. Some farm workers remain seasonal, coming and going as the harvests require, while others have stayed and settled in Saluda, establishing businesses, community organizations, stores, and churches.
Without the immigrants to work at the poultry plants, this would become a ghost town.
Ortiz says the town has been “pretty welcoming” to the newcomers. “If you ask anyone around here, of course they would all like the people to be able to come here legally, but the reality is the Hispanic workers don’t bother anyone and they pay their taxes.” Of course, he adds, many Americans don’t realize that not all of these foreign workers even want to stay. Some want to work for four or five years, save some money, and return home. U.S. farms can hire seasonal help through the H-2A agricultural visa, but the program can be so cumbersome and costly that many farmers choose not to use it. “The system is too bureaucratic,” says Ortiz.
Another immigration improvement Ortiz would like to see is a permanent solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), the 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to legally work in the United States. Ortiz’s company has two interns who are DACA recipients, and he feels strongly about the program. “If you can pass background felony checks, can prove that you have stayed here and made a life, and that you have ties here, you should be allowed to stay,” Ortiz says. “I believe that is the best solution for those here already.”