Immigrant labor is a necessity on today’s dairy. From small farms that employ one milker to dairies with hundreds of workers, producers are watching the Trump administration with caution and facing the daily reality of operating their business under a broken system of immigration.

The broken system

“Beginning in the mid-1990s, the number of dairy employers hiring Hispanic workers began to increase,” explains Thomas R. Maloney, senior extension associate for the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

“Dairy producers quickly found that these new workers were willing to work long hours and do hard, repetitive and demanding work.”

Twenty years later, “Most dairy producers who have employed Hispanic workers for years cannot imagine running their farms without them,” Maloney says. A recent survey by Texas A&M University found that approximately half of the employees on dairies are foreign-born.

Vista Grande Dairy in Plainview, Texas, is one such example. “The labor force is your nucleus on the dairy,” explains Bernadette W. Mulliken, owner of Vista Grande. Mulliken currently employs 45 individuals, including immigrants, on their 2,300-acre operation which milks 4,050 Holstein cows, along with raising 3,870 head of youngstock. She has worked in the dairy industry since 1976.


“As other dairymen will tell you, we have work to do seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Mulliken says. “We are very satisfied with our labor force. Several families have been with us since we started in 1994, and some of their grown children are working with us.”

Smaller farms have also come to rely on immigrant labor.

“The main challenge we face is due to the fact we have a split shift,” shared a Midwestern dairyman who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of enforcement.

“We need an employee to do the morning milking, take a break for five or six hours and then do the afternoon milking. It is a sad realization, but most U.S. citizens would not be willing to do eight hours of milking a day.”

Over the past 10 years, this small dairy has had three immigrant employees who were referred by fellow dairymen. “The employees have been excellent workers,” he explains. “Our current employee does a really good job of milking and keeping things clean. He has been very dependable and does not use a lot of vacation time or ask for much time off.”

Changes under Pres. Trump

Dairy producers large and small are closely watching the changes in Washington and trying to anticipate how new policies will affect their operations.

President Trump made immigration reform and border security a key election issue. Since taking office in January, he has issued executive orders which have lowered the standard of investigation and arrest as compared to President Obama.

Today, technically everyone who is currently in the country illegally falls under his Jan. 25 executive order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”

During Obama’s eight years, immigration directives gradually changed from the broad enforcement of policy to addressing specific threats by illegal immigrants. More than 2.5 million immigrants were deported, an increase of more than 20 percent from the Bush administration. The standard for detention has been significantly lowered since January.

“The recently signed executive orders have given immigration enforcement officers and local police a great deal of latitude in enforcing immigration laws,” Maloney explains. “While it has been stated that enforcement officials are focused on rounding up criminals, the executive orders define even minor offenses as grounds for detention and deportation.”

Those minor offenses may include misdemeanors such as fraud, a key concern for dairy producers faced with employees using a false identity or Social Security number.

The Midwestern dairy producer interviewed for this story admits he was very naïve about the paperwork process. “They provided us with a number which looked like a Social Security number, and we withheld taxes from their paychecks just as we do with every other employee.”

Being a small dairy with only five or six employees, mostly local high school boys, the dairy had never completed I-9 forms or used e-Verify, the government’s internet-based work eligibility verification system.

“Unauthorized workers in the U.S. create vulnerabilities in today’s marketplace by presenting false documents to gain employment, completing applications for fraudulent benefits and stealing identities of legal U.S. workers,” points out Leticia Zamarripa of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To combat this problem, ICE conducts both paperwork audits and worksite raids.

“In 2009, the Obama administration shifted enforcement emphasis from raids to I-9 audits,” explains Maloney. “If specific employees are determined to be unauthorized, employers are instructed to terminate their employment.”

Ross Tappan of Arizona Dairy Company was the subject of an I-9 audit, also called a “Silent Raid,” in 2011. Following the month-long process, he was required to fire 10 percent of his workforce within 10 days.

John VerHaar of Aquila Farms dairy in Michigan was charged with employing undocumented workers in 2010 following three on-farm raids. He was arrested, charged and fined $2.7 million.

The Bridgewater Dairy in Williams County, Ohio, was raided by ICE agents just this year. On March 5, 2017, eight of the dairy’s employees were detained. According to Josh Ewers of The Bryan Times, “The eight individuals were all men between the ages of 24 and 50. Seven were from Mexico, and one was from Honduras.”

“An effective, comprehensive strategy must address employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers as well as the workers themselves,” Zamarripa says. “ICE’s worksite enforcement strategy focuses on criminally prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. In addition to criminal prosecutions, ICE continues to fine employers who hire an illegal workforce.

Inspections are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to ensure businesses are complying with U.S. employment laws,” Zamarripa responds.

According to Zamarripa, ICE completed 1,279 I-9 inspections or audits last year.

In addition to lowering the standard for detaining people – from “probable cause” under the Obama administration to any “reason to believe” the person is removable under President Trump – the “Secured Communities” initiative will likely see local law enforcement serving some immigration roles. Undocumented workers could be detained through traffic stops, for instance.

Local law enforcement joined ICE with the raid at the Bridgewater Dairy in Ohio. Williams County Sheriff Steve Towns told the paper his deputies “assisted ICE agents with picking up some targeted individuals and a few others also became detained. It wasn’t random.

They had names and addresses of people under pick-up orders, and they had the information and equipment to verify who they were. They had stuff to check their fingerprints on the spot.”

“Clearly the standard for people who can be detained or deported has been lowered by the executive orders,” Maloney summarizes. “Many Hispanic dairy workers are concerned about this, and some have stopped going off the farms where they work.”

California judge Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice and highest ranking judicial officer in the state, has been especially critical of ICE agents having an increased presence near courthouses.

“I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests,” the judge wrote in a public letter to Jeff Sessions, U.S. attorney general, and John Kelly, chief of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The judge argued, “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.” The Los Angeles Times reported ICE agents have also been more active at courthouses in Arizona, Colorado and Texas.

In the past, “sensitive locations” such as churches, hospitals and schools were avoided, according to ICE. Courthouses have traditionally not been considered off limits.

Uncertainty about how to move forward

The challenge of securing a productive workforce in the future causes many dairy producers to carefully evaluate expansion plans. “The current tight labor situation has caused many farm employers to be cautious about growing the business,” Maloney says. “It has also raised concern among the next generation of dairy managers who are considering entering the business.”

Mulliken is being proactive on her dairy. “We have audits of our I-9 (forms), and we have hired an immigration attorney to review our forms,” she says. Vista Grande has also implemented a protocol should they be visited by ICE.

“We have reviewed the NMPF memo (dated Feb. 17, 2017, and sent to members) and hope to minimize impact.” The dairy has also worked through the long process of getting work visas for key employees.

“Our goal is longevity with employees,” Mulliken explains. “We would like Congress to work on coming together on immigration. Let’s have something employees can apply for as long as they prove they have been working here with no criminal background.”

Both the American Dairy Coalition (ADC) and the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) are working with legislators to develop solutions. The H2A visa program for seasonal labor is not applicable to year-round employees, and the H1B visa for highly skilled immigrants also does not apply. ADC and AWC are trying to address the gap.

“Specifically, agriculture is calling for some type of legal immigration status for current unauthorized workers and a modern guest worker visa program that would include dairy,” Maloney explains.

Amid frustration and disappointment, Mulliken never thought the solution to this dilemma would take so long. “We have had the opportunity to work for the privilege to advance our dreams through dairy ownership,” Mulliken says. “Isn’t that the American dream? How can we develop opportunity for those committed day in and day out who are without the right to work here but have proven their positive commitment to agriculture, family and community?”  end mark

Karena Elliott
  • Karena Elliott

  • Freelance Writer
  • Amarillo, Texas