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Farming leader: Immigration emotion hampers migrant labor solution

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YUMA – Emotion over illegal immigration and a lack of understanding between politicians and farmers is hampering efforts to bring much-needed migrant labor into the U.S., a noted farmer, philanthropist and author said Thursday.

“When we talk with agriculture people in Washington, and they’ve never been on a farm, that’s your problem,” said Howard G. Buffett, a farmer and president of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. “They’ve never lost a farm, or lost a crop, because they couldn’t get labor.”

Addressing the Southwestern Agriculture Summit, Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, also said the U.S. Department of Labor needs a change in mentality when it comes to bringing in labor.

Buffett, who oversees research farms in Arizona, Illinois and South Africa, was a keynote speaker at the summit, which offered growers the opportunity to discuss subjects including technology, innovation, irrigation and pesticide control.

He said the main system for bringing in migrant workers, the H-2A program, is slow and inefficient. But the political pundits are turning important discussions about solutions into a debate between two uncompromising sides, he said.

“There are commentators that immediately … go to amnesty. Nobody’s talking about amnesty,” Buffett said. “But if you inject amnesty into the discussion, all of a sudden it polarizes the debate. It separates people and people take positions on it and the emotion goes up.”

Meanwhile, he said, farms have gone out of business because they haven’t been able to get enough labor or get labor quickly enough to keep crops from rotting.

“That’s an emotional issue. That’s your livelihood. That’s everything you have invested,” Buffett said. “That’s your family. That’s your legacy.”

Buffett said the Labor Department wrongly believes that with unemployment still high workers shouldn’t be brought into the country. American workers aren’t going to take back-breaking farming jobs, especially if they are already living off welfare, he said.

“If there’s one thing that everyone ought to understand, and everyone in this room will understand it, is Americans will not do this job,” Buffett said.