TRAVERSE CITY — Migrant workers play an important role in Michigan, state agriculture and local economies, but their numbers may be shrinking as a result of several factors, including highly politicized immigration reform rhetoric and complex policies.
It’s a serious problem with troubling ramifications for Michigan farmers who depend on experienced and skilled migrant workers to harvest handpicked fruits and vegetables, a panel of four said during a recent discussion at the History Center of Traverse City.
For panelist Jim Bardenhagen, an area fruit and vegetable farmer and retired 20-year Leelanau County extension director, the complex issue of migrant workers and immigration reform can be boiled down into a one question.
“Do you want to import workers or food?” he asked.
Other speakers on the panel included:
Steve Morse, retired Notre Dame law professor and member of the Grand Traverse League of Women Voters’ Farm Labor Task Force; Gladys Muñoz, local civil rights advocate, medical interpreter and 2013 Traverse City Human Right’s Commission Sarah Hardy Humanitarian Award winner; and Ana Garcia, 24, a former Leelanau migrant worker who now works as a summer migrant school recruiter for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and a Michigan State University education program.
Melissa Claramunt, a Michigan Department of Civil Rights specialist, moderated the discussion that capped the History Center’s month-long Legends exhibit that focused in part on migrant workers.
Panelists listed several reasons for the worker shortage, among them:
n A lack of understanding and appreciation of the importance of migrant labor to Michigan farmers by the general public and Legislature.
n Non-migrant Michigan workers do not seek migrant jobs, nor do they have the skills, experience and endurance it takes to perform them.
* Current immigration laws and policies are a “mess” - complex, cumbersome, often mean-hearted and result in racial profiling.