When Kentucky Senator Ralph Alvarado took the stage on day three of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, he told the crowd, “Being the son of immigrants, I saw firsthand their sacrifice to provide our family a better life. I watched their strong and quiet commitment to hard work. … They were Hispanic. They were Americans. And they were very proud of being both.”
Fox News called it a “breakout moment for the relatively unknown state senator” and cited his turn as a rising star of the Republican party. It was clear, in that moment and now, just how proud Alvarado is of his immigrant heritage. Both of his parents made their journey to the United States before he was born, his mom from Argentina in 1965 on a student visa, and his dad from Costa Rica in 1963 on a friend’s sponsorship. Both ended up in San Jose, California, where they raised Alvarado. He attended college and medical school in California and completed a residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Kentucky. “My dad was 44 when he came,” Alvarado says in an interview. “I’m 46, and I couldn’t imagine being on my own and going to Germany or Sweden and saying ‘I don’t know the language that well but I’m going to work hard and adapt.’ But that’s exactly what the immigrant story is: You come, you learn, you adapt. That’s how you make it.”
Alvarado is now living out the American dream his parents imagined. When he’s not busy in the legislative session, passing bills like one he recently sponsored to ban tobacco on public school property, Alvarado works as a practicing physician in Winchester. Whether he’s in suit and tie or a doctor’s white coat, Alvarado says his duty is to serve his constituents. “They’re salt-of-the-earth people who’d give you the shirt off their backs,” he says.
And what do those constituents tell Alvarado they want? Easy. They want immigration reform, he says. “Immigrants in Kentucky are often working in our agricultural community, the horsing industry,” Alvarado says. “Our local farmers here will tell me ‘Hey, I’ve got some really good workers, I can’t afford to lose these guys. Can we find a way to help them out?’ These are farmers who are trying to do things the right way, hiring workers through the legal, work visa system. But the government’s made that program so cumbersome that it’s really difficult to get the laborers we need. So we do need to extend our worker visa program for a lot of those folks.”
Those who are already here, who want to stay here and are doing things the right way, I think we need to find a way to let them stay.
Alvarado knows a thing or two about farming, since he recently picked up a third career as an industrial hemp grower. He’s part of a Kentucky Department of Agriculture pilot program to use the crop as fiber for textiles and rope. “Ever since tobacco was no longer subsidized, a lot of farmers are looking for other crops to grow that can yield quite a bit of return on their land, and hemp has always been thought to be one of those,” he says. U.S. retail sales of hemp-based products are estimated to exceed $300 million per year, so the industry could provide a significant boost to the state economy. Without immigration reform, however, Kentucky’s farmers could wind up with lackluster results, he says. “The researchers at the University of Kentucky who have been doing this for a couple of years say hemp can get a pretty thick stock,” Alvarado says. “So it may take a lot of manpower to chop it all down and harvest it.”
In addition to streamlining the guest worker program, Alvarado would like to see the border secured against criminal entry and the process for legal entry accelerated. “We have a huge backlog of people who are waiting to get in,” Alvarado says. “And a lot of them are very capable, so we need to get them in here faster.” At the top of this list are immigrants who have served in the military, who live in Puerto Rico, and who are here on student visas. “We have people coming to our universities, getting higher degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, who are then taking all of that information back with them to their countries where they use that to compete back against us,” he says. “Don’t let a brain train leave the country! If we bring people from other countries who are capable, we should find a policy that let’s those folks have an easier time of coming in and staying in our country, and using that to our advantage against other places.”
As for what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently call the United States home: “Those who are already here, who want to stay here and are doing things the right way, I think we need to find a way to let them stay,” says Alvarado. “People can debate whether you let them get in line to become citizens. But at least let them pay back taxes and fines so they can get documented and get a work visa. I’ll tell you, the reputation of these farm workers is tremendous in Kentucky; our farmers say they are very dedicated, hardworking people. They’re important. And reforming the system would allow a lot of these level-headed people — who are providing services to a lot of our farms, doing work that we have a hard time finding anyone else to do — to stay. I think that’s the most humane way to do it.”