After being on the national back burner for the last three years, the illegal immigration issue has resurfaced again in Kentucky in the form of a bill that breezed through the Senate in early January.
Horse industry officials discussed how the bill, which could subject employers to felony prosecution for assisting undocumented immigrants, would affect the local horse industry if approved by the House.
“As it is written today, it could have a serious impact on all of commerce,” said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association. “Not just the horse industry, but building trades, manufacturing, restaurants, and hospitality industry, where unfortunately there are illegal people employed.”
The Kentucky immigration bill heads to a House committee. If approved by the committee, House leadership will decide whether it moves forward. In its current form, the measure, which cleared the Senate on a 24-14 vote Jan. 7, states any illegal immigrant who steps foot on Kentucky soil will be charged with a misdemeanor on a first offense and a felony with prison time on the second.
If the bill gets a hearing, Switzer intends on educating committee members about where he says the problem really lies—in Congress. Switzer thinks the current H-2A and H-2B programs, which are the respective visas for immigrants working on farms and at racetracks or horse shows, need to be modernized and more accommodating.
“If we can make those programs more accessible, then we would be hiring legal workers that are documented and there would not be any jobs available for illegals,” he said. “That was the message we sent to (Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano, and we’re getting ready to send it to our Kentucky congressional delegation.”
The current debate in Congress is whether amnesty should be given to illegal immigrants who have already broken the law. “It may be that we have to start from ground zero with a modernized H-2A, H-2B program, so they will all be documented workers,” Switzer said. “It will be difficult for a few years until we get a solid, documented work force, but that may be the way to appease those that want to fill up all the buses and drive them back across the border.”
Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, supports a concept called comprehensive immigration reform, which examines ways to legalize existing foreign workers and streamline the process for future employees. Immigration reform was shelved in 2007 following a troubled attempt at overhaul under the Bush administration, but Hickey hopes Congress will re-examine the issue in the future.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” Hickey said. “Those who are opposed to a way to make it easier to bring in workers or to allow workers to stay here say, ‘The economy is bad, so let’s give jobs to Americans,’ and ‘Why should we reward people that have broken the law?’ They make some very good points, but at the same time industries like ours rely on foreigners to survive.
“Many of them have been here for many years, and our farms, ranches, breeders, and trainers rely on them—they’ve worked their way up to important positions. We need a way to regularize those undocumented workers.”