Arkansas Business And Agriculture Leaders Push For Immigration Reform

Mar 19, 2014

Grant Tennille, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, speaks to reporters, while Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Beau Bishop of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, listen.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A new study by the Partnership for a New American Economy suggests labor shortages are increasing the reliance on imported produce and slowing economic growth in Arkansas.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, heads of chamber of commerce groups, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Economic Development Commission, said it shows the need for the U.S. Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform.

The study (which can be downloaded here as a PDF) says more fresh produce is imported into the U.S. today than ever before.

“This report mirrors what we have heard from our members and businesses, as well as elected leaders across the state, that our existing immigration system unnecessarily strains our ability to grow the economy to compete and bring new business and industry to Arkansas,” said Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

Beau Bishop, who leads national affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said often Arkansas growers can’t find enough people willing to do the back breaking labor needed to get produce to market.

“In some instances, farmers are left to leave crops in the field due to a lack of labor force. Immigration reform needs to be something Arkansans embrace because our economy and our future for farming depends on it," Bishop said.

But it’s not just low wage jobs. The head of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said changes need to be made to recruit people to highly specialized positions.

“We probably aren’t going to be creating enough engineers for a while, as hard as we’re pushing more and more students, particularly young women into the STEM fields and trying to encourage them in that direction,” said AEDC Executive Director Grant Tennille.

“If we want to keep pace with what we know industry needs, we’re going to have to get some of these folks from somewhere else and one of the surest and best ways to get them is to throw our doors open and say you are welcome here and you can make a life here,” Tennille said.

The group said Wednesday’s press conference will kick off a month of hearings around the state, pressing people to contact Arkansas’s congressional delegation and ask them to commit to passing immigration reform.