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Exploring immigration in the dairy industry

January 4, 2019
By KAREN SCHWALLER - Farm News staff writer (kschwaller@evertek.net) , Farm News

By KAREN SCHWALLER

kschwaller@evertek.net

ORANGE CITY - The American populace needs to welcome immigrant workers into American agriculture, for fear of its downfall.

Article Photos

During last month’s Dairy Discussion Day in Orange City, the importance of immigrant workers being welcomed into American agriculture, specifically the dairy industry was discussed

That was what Bob Naerebout talked about at last month's Dairy Discussions Day in Orange City.

Naerebout leads the Idaho Dairymen's Association in its government affairs and works with groups to see the advancement of responsible immigration reform.

He serves on the executive committees of the National Immigration Forum and the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform. He is also a committee member of the University of Idaho Latino Advisory Committee and the National Milk Producers Federation Immigration Task Force.

As dairy operations become larger, they have also increased dependence on foreign-born labor, or FBL.

Naerebout said the Idaho dairy industry is undergoing the same kinds of changes that dairies across the nation are - dairies are getting larger, and there are fewer of them. There are 472 Idaho dairies of varying sizes, employing just over 579,300 workers.

Extreme south central Idaho, known as the Magic Valley, features a concentrated area of dairy farms, and because of those dairies, other related businesses and dairy processors have set up shop and contributed to the overall economic success of the state.

Naerebout said dairy represents 33 percent of the ag sector of the state, and that Idaho received $10.4 billion in economic output in sales from the dairy industry in 2016. For every dollar brought into Idaho through exports, Naerebout said $2.48 of economic output is generated.

Hispanic population

The Hispanic population in Idaho is growing faster than the non-Hispanic population, with the very young to young age group out ahead of the rest.

Naerebout said, in 2015, the Idaho dairy industry supported its economy with 39,400 jobs, and more than 90 percent of the on-dairy jobs were filled by FBL.

He added there are 8,100 jobs being filled on dairies, another 3,700 in processing, and 27,600 people working in supporting businesses.

"Without those (dairy) jobs, none of the others exist," he said. "In the Magic Valley area, there's no magic without FBL. It's time - as agriculturalists, as dairies - to stand up and say it's because of the FBL that we are so successful."

He added the ag industry, including dairy and other industries that utilize FBL, is hiring workers that present proper documentation of their legal status. Estimates from the Department of Labor (DOL) and USDA show that 50 percent of ag workforce (and possibly more, according to Naerebout) lack proper documentation.

"The economic viability of rural Idaho has become dependent on FBL," said Naerebout. "If we ask everyone who is here without legal documentation to leave our country, there is nobody left in the dairy industry across the country to milk the cows or care for our animals. This is what's at stake, so you have to be willing to come out and (make that known)."

The IDA acknowledges that the success and growth of Idaho's dairy industry would not be possible without the work and efforts put forth by FBL.

"These hard working, family-oriented individuals have toiled beside our dairy farm families for generations to help build the industry we are today," he said. "The IDA believes one of its most impactful initiatives is promoting and protecting them and their families."

Naerebout said doing nothing to help FBL limits the nation's economic potential, creates a labor force that lives with threats of separation from families and deprives many in production agriculture a steady workforce.

Additionally, the dairy industry does not have access to a visa program, and according to Naerebout, it is illegal for the industry to utilize the H2A program. The IDA's Labor Shortage Petition delivered 3,500 signatures to state delegation members to create awareness of the current labor shortage in agriculture and other industries that are dependent on FBL.

Naerebout said the IDA supports immigration legislation that improves the stability of ag labor, and that includes provisions for allowing immigrants currently employed or with recent employment history in the U.S. the right to earn legal status without having to return to their country of origin, and that legal status includes their spouse and dependent children.

It must include an affordable and efficient guest worker program that ensures the continued availability of immigrant labor for all agriculture, including dairy, and a provision that specifies the responsibility for ultimate verification of the legal status of a worker lies with the federal government, not with employers.

He said passing immigration reform should be a matter of logic versus emotion, considering the national agriculture industry's dependence on FBL.

"I encourage you to be able to (tell your legislators) how important FBL is to the state of Iowa," he said of the 12 million people who are in the U.S. without legal status. "We have to stop talking about deporting (them) and start talking about how we make sensible immigration reform."

Naerebout added that many of the immigrants who have come to the U.S. left situations in their countries that, "quite frankly, you and I would have left, too."

No matter how a dairy family chooses to become involved, Naerebout said they should get on the bandwagon to help immigration reform for the sake of the nation's dairy industry and economic success.

"It will take education at the state and federal levels, an investment of your time and resources, and identifying those resources," he said, adding that the ratio is 900 to 1 of people who support immigration reform to those who don't, with the 900 being those who do not support it. "That's a mindset you have to change. You have to let your state legislators know how important this is to the state of Iowa and why it's important to you as dairy producers."

Naerebout said it is not the goal of Idaho to become a sanctuary state, but it is their goal to protect their labor force.

"We think we can't have it both ways, but I think we can," he said. "Immigration reform can be compassionate and strong. It can be for those who want a strong border and those who want a strong interior. But we can't just have it one way; we can't have just strength, and we can't just have compassion."

Information from Iowa State University Extension proceedings stated the most recent significant immigration legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The U.S. Senate passed the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act" in 2013, a bipartisan, comprehensive reform bill (S-744). The bill was never given a vote in the U.S. House even though it was viewed as having sufficient support to pass.

The ag portion of S-744 was negotiated between ag organizations and farm labor representatives to address ag needs, the proceedings said.

It went on to state that one more recent proposal was the 2018 "Ag and Legal Workforce Act" (HR-6417), which would have eliminated the H2A visa encompassing ag jobs, along with meat processing jobs and jobs associated with food manufacturing. The information states the bill would have authorized employers to pay below the FLSA minimum wage by imposing deductions and charges on workers.

These H-2C workers would not have been covered by the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983, a primary farm worker protection law. The proposal would have made the H-2C a 36-month visa with no path to permanent residency or citizenship.

The IDA's policy position on immigration reform contains propositions to provide avenues for legal status for the current work force and their immediate family members, a fluid visa program that allows the dairy industry to secure additional labor as needed, and the requirement of determining legal status of employees is the responsibility of the U.S. government, and not employers.

 
 

 

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