President Trump has spent a majority of his time recently playing hardball with North Korea, visiting hurricane disaster areas and threatening to pull out of NAFTA. Even though not much has surfaced recently around immigration, other than his decision on DACA, producers still fear that the worst is yet to come with regard to the employment of foreign-born labor.
It’s no secret that immigrant labor powers U.S. dairies. For example, in Idaho it’s estimated that 85 to 90% of dairy workers in the state are foreign born. More unnerving, the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that half to 70% of all U.S. farm laborers–including those outside of dairy–are undocumented.
The uncertainty around the future of immigration policy is seen in dairy-heavy regions all over the U.S., including in the Magic Valley of southern Idaho, home to more than 400,000 dairy cows and numerous processing facilities, including Chobani’s mammoth yogurt plant. A recent Politico article shed light on the impact a potential crackdown on immigration could have on this region. Trump won Idaho handily but now faces supporters uncertain of the future created by their own votes.
The situation became dire recently when it was announced in Jerome, Idaho that a potential $1.37 million deal would rent jail space to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which would use those beds to detain possible deportees. Dairy producers feared a mass exodus of farm labor. Chobani said their plant would not exist with out the supply from local dairies. Supporters said illegal immigrants shouldn’t be here anyway.
The most recent word from President Trump around immigration reform looks to limit immigration opportunities rather than revise the permitting process. “Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits,” President Trump says. “It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class.”
A promising bill will be introduced shortly to Congress that would revise the current H-2A program for seasonal workers. This bill, called “The Agriculture Guestworker Act of 2017 (AG Act)” will create a new visa category called H-2C. This would replace the existing H-2A program and provide more streamlined access to guestworkers by dairies and other farmers who utilize immigrant labor.
Regardless of the outcomes of these bills or other initiatives, it’s clear that immigration reform is critical to the future of the dairy industry. Talking to most producers, their desire is less focused on immigration as it is keeping the employees already on staff without worry that one day they or their families would be sent back to their homeland. Because it’s been shown time and again that if immigrant labor doesn’t do the work, there won’t be enough–or any–non-immigrant work available to get the cows milked.