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Philanthropist cites contributions of area's farmworkers
SAN LUIS, Ariz. — A lack of recognition of the contribution of migrant farmworkers and a dysfunctional immigration policy are creating a shortage of labor in this country and are leading to billions of dollars of crop losses, philanthropist Howard G. Buffett said Saturday.
Buffett, head of a philanthropic foundation that bears his name and the eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, made his comments as one of the speakers in the Dia del Campesino, or Day of the Farmworker, event in San Luis,
The annual event — held at Friendship Park, located just steps from the international border — brings together the Yuma area's farmworkers with community and social service organization that can provide them a variety of services. The last speaker in the 18th annual event Saturday morning prompted thunderous applause as he proclaimed “Viva Mexico,” in recognition of the country of origin of the majority of the workers.
“We all know that supermarket shelves, from California to New York, are filled thanks to the work of all of you,” Buffett said, addressing thousands of workers gathered for the event. “It is very frustrating to see that the work, the commitment and the sacrifices that you make for this country are not recognized,” said Buffett, himself a farmer in his native Nebraska as well as Illinois.
Buffett was invited to speak at Dia del Campesino by Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas (CITA), a social service organization funded by Catholic Relief Services that provides services to migrant farmworkers.
In a speech following a prayer led by Bishop Gerald Kincanas of the Tucson Diocese, Buffett said that in states such as Michigan, Georgia and Nebraska, agricultural production valued in the billions of dollars is going to waste owing to a lack of labor created by stiffer immigration regulations.
“There is a huge disconnect of reality in the immigration debate. The issue of migrant farmworkers is a separate issue. They are a separate class, and they should be appreciated and recognized for what they do for our country and its food system.”
About 70 community organizations and businesses gathered at Friendship Park to offer vaccinations, exams and pass information about social services that are available to the area's farmworkers. The event began at 3 a.m. to give the workers time to file into the park before boarding labor buses that would take them to the area's fields.
In an interview, Buffett stressed the need for lawmakers to fix the nation's immigration policy to meet the needs of the nation's agricultural industry.
Otherwise, he added, “in a few years will see the production leaving the country for lack of labor, because the major part of the agricultural industry depends on that labor. We need to have an immigration policy that works to meet those needs. The current policy does not work.”
But he conceded that achieving broad immigration reform is not an easy task. “(President) Obama has said he will apply enough pressure so that immigration reform is done, just like he has done with health care reform. We'll see if he does it.”
Buffett — who in 2000 received the highest honor Mexico bestows on foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle — said migrant farmwokers must be treated as a separate issue in the immigration debate.
“I don't know an American who gets up at 4 in the morning to line up to cross the border, to go do one of the hardest jobs that exists, then returns home to take care of the family. They are not taking jobs from anyone in the United States. They are not the same as the other immigrant workers.”
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation operates globally, providing financing for projects aimed at ensuring food safety, particularly in poor countries.
Later in the day Saturday, Buffet took part in the grand opening of CITA's new office in Yuma, at 550 E. 32nd St.
The CITA office will recruit H-2A guest workers for agriculture jobs in Yuma, as well as helping area employers to meet federal requirements for employing guest workers.