Tom Dunlap spent 18 years in the Huron County Sheriff’s office, including four years as Sheriff. During his career in public service, he’s gotten to know a number of the county’s foreign-born residents. “Over the years many of the migrant farm workers in the muck farm area have stayed and grown roots,” he says.
Dunlap, who is currently a Huron County Commissioner, also ran as a candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives’ 57th district in 2016. While other politicians might shy away from talking about immigration, Dunlap is 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. But immigration policies have made labor shortage a real problem. “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 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.
People who want to grow roots here should have a streamlined application process that’s not cost-prohibitive.
Dunlap has also seen up close the consequences of a broken immigration system. Over the two decades that he taught criminal justice at EHOVE Career Center, his immigrant students left a lasting impact. One Iraqi student was stereotyped and stigmatized, despite having served for many years in the U.S. military. Three of Dunlap’s students were brought to the United States 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.
And so, as an Ohio House candidate, Dunlap 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, mixed and mingled over the generations. To demonstrate this fact, Dunlap has even considered taking one of those mail-in genetic tests to learn more about his family’s origins. He knows about his Irish and German ancestors, but he wonders if there isn’t some other ethnicity, too. “There’s a gene somewhere in our heritage,” he says. “I’d like to know what it is.”