With a failed attempt to repeal and replace President Barack Obama's health care law, the Republican-led Congress now turns its attention to a second major campaign pledge, federal tax reform. Meanwhile, proponents of immigration reform are preparing for that congressional debate later this fall.
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) and Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs hosted a media conference, March 22, to bring attention to the importance of immigrant labor in Idaho, and apply pressure to the state’s congressional delegation to take a leadership role in crafting reforms.
Bob Naerebout, IDA executive director, said immigration reform efforts have largely failed over the past decade. He serves on the National Milk Producers Federation’s (NMPF) Immigration Task Force Committee, and on the executive boards of both the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the National Immigration Forum.
Naerebout emphasized Idaho’s economic health depended on the vitality of rural and agricultural economies. He said the dairy industry has a $10.4 billion impact on the state’s annual economy, and generates $160 million in state taxes. Of about 8,100 employees in the state’s dairy industry, it’s estimated about 85 percent are Hispanic and foreign-born.
According to a study NMPF commissioned with Texas A&M University, released in August 2015, 51 percent of all dairy farm workers are immigrants, and the farms that employ them account for 79 percent of the milk produced in the U.S.
With the immigration reform debate traditionally driven by Democrats, Idaho’s congressional delegation offers the element of “surprise” if it takes a leadership role, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based, National Immigration Forum.
“Idaho has an opportunity because it is a state that increasingly depends on immigrants in order to create jobs and a prosperous future for American workers and their families in Idaho,” he said. “As one of the most conservative states in the country, whose economy is so closely linked to the immigrant workforce, this delegation can change the debate. It will take political courage on their part. Good politics makes for good policy, and good policy makes for good politics.”
Charlie Garrison, founder of the Garrison Group, a Washington D.C.-based public affairs firm that lobbies on behalf of the IDA, said the delegation is uniquely positioned to lead on immigration reform efforts beneficial to agriculture.
Representing a conservative state, Idaho’s two senators, Michael Crapo and James Risch, and two members of the House, Raul Labrador and Michael Simpson, are all Republicans.
Crapo sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the subcommittee with oversight on border security and immigration issues. According to Garrison, Risch “knows agriculture better than anyone else in the state.”
Labrador sits on the House Judiciary Committee, and is vice chairman of the subcommittee on immigration and border security. Simpson, in Congress since 1999, has substantial seniority and sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
With about 600,000 cows, Idaho is the third-leading U.S. milk producing state, Noorani noted. Combined with an unemployment rate of about 3 percent in Idaho’s Magic Valley, the dairy industry is heavily dependent on immigrant labor.
“There’s an incredibly tight labor market with demand for skilled labor to get this product to market,” Noorani said. “How will (the state’s congressional leaders) look their dairy producers in the eyes and tell them they can’t do anything to help them survive? Without immigrant labor and a dynamic visa system that meets labor needs within the dairy industry, there are farms that are going to struggle in the days and year ahead.
“From what I’ve seen, Idaho could not hold on to that ranking without the contributions of the immigrant workforce,” Noorani said. “The immigrant workforce helps and contributes to the dreams and aspirations of Americans and their own families.”
Compromise is possible, but timing is critical
Naerebout recognized that immigration reform is a controversial issue, with lines drawn in the sand.
“There are people who support immigration labor and those who are opposed,” he said. “We’re trying to elevate the debate so that immigration reform isn’t a back-burner issue in Washington D.C. – it’s a front-burner issue. ”
“For IDA, immigration reform is priority 1,2 and 3,” Garrison said, noting there is room for compromise, including creation of a visa program providing a legal workforce for dairy farmers. He called for visa reforms offering legal, year-round work status for current and future dairy workers.
“You have to take the two ends of the perspective off the table,” he said. “There are those who block anything that’s not perfect, and those who will try to block everything. The extremes won’t get what they want.”
Garrison said efforts are being made to negotiate an immigration reform package beneficial to agriculture while the rest of Congress is working on health care and tax reform. He’s convinced agriculture can be ready. He also warned the window of opportunity is small.
“Immigration reform needs to happen in 2017,” he said. “As soon as the calendar turns to 2018, all eyes are on mid-term elections, and immigration reform is hard enough in a non-election year. We need to focus on being ready, working with a lot of organizations nationwide. Businesses and farmers clearly need this.”
Priscilla Salant, recently retired director of the University of Idaho McClure Center, estimated there were about 5,000 dairy production workers in the Magic Valley alone, and another 2,000 workers in the Valley’s milk processing industry. Those workers, she said, brought value not only to the dairy industry, but also to the area’s communities.
“The people who work on dairy farms are experienced, trained and largely foreign-born,” she said. ”And many of them have families who are well-integrated in the communities of the Magic Valley. They’ve moved here and purchased homes in communities which might have been losing population; their children are in schools that otherwise might be losing enrollment.”
Salant said there’s a general misconception immigrant workers are flooding into the area. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 45,000 undocumented workers in Idaho in 2009, a number that remained unchanged in 2016. “There was no net increase,” she said. “Net immigration from Mexico to Idaho is zero.”
Salant identified a labor shortage playing out in dairy and other parts of the economy in the Magic Valley.
“You’d think there’d be upward pressure on wages, but dairy is a globally competitive industry, and the margins, as best as we can see, are not large enough to absorb major increases in the prevailing wage. So, they’re caught in a bind, and if industries are in a bind, then the communities of Idaho are caught in a bind.”
Naerebout said technology and mechanization will play a future role in addressing dairy’s labor needs.
”Mechanization, robotic milkers, work for smaller operations,” he said. “Eventually that will come for larger operations, and prices will come down, but you’re still going to spend $160,000-$200,000 per machine to milk 60 cows. The average dairy in the Magic Valley has 1,500 cows; the current availability of mechanization is not adequate.
“You have choices as a dairy producer,” he said. “Do you downsize herds to match the available labor force? We have some who want to expand but can’t. There will be an increasing mechanization, but that’s long-term, with a big investment. There’s no upside for a labor shortage in dairy; there’s only a downside.”
Juan Saldana, community research development specialist with Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said there was a growing fear in Hispanic communities related to workplace raids and deportations.
Additionally political rhetoric and executive orders by President Trump have heightened the fear level among Hispanic workers and their employers, Naerebout said. Those fears are having an impact, as immigrant workers stop coming to work in fear of being targeted.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, the fear level is at a 10,” said Naerebout, who characterized the fear as both moral and economic.
“The fear, number one, starts with our employees,” he said. “One employee on one of our dairies asked, ‘If my wife and I are deported, are you going to take care of our children?’ You have to realize the moral side of this equation and the amount fear it brings to people. I don’t think anyone can understand that unless you’re put in that same position.”
Second, he said, was economic fear among dairy producers.
“Obviously, cattle are unlike construction jobs where if there isn’t labor you set down you hammer and come back the next day,” Naerebout said. “Cattle have to be fed and milked, 365 days a year.”
Noorani said fears surrounding immigrant labor crackdowns have a destabilizing impact on the workforce and on public safety.
“Whether or not a raid happens, someone is going to work scared about what may happen,” he said. “It has a destabilizing effect on their ability to do their job. We’re seeing this not only in agriculture, but also in tech industries and other industries across the country.
“It also has a destabilization effect on public safety,” Noorani said. “When you have victims of domestic violence or witnesses to crimes not reporting those crimes, the cop on the street can’t do their job. The cop on the street depends on having a trusting relationship with the entirety of their community, documented or not, in order to fulfill their mission to serve and protect their city or town.”
In some cases, those fears were being fueled by rumors and not reality.
Garrison said the Trump administration has remained true to its pledge to target apprehension and deportation of individuals who are deemed a threat to public safety or national security.
“Everything we’ve seen so far says that that’s true,” Garrison said. “The workplace has been a site of detention a time or two, but there’s no evidence that workplaces are some sort of target. That’s important for people to know: That it’s safe to show up to work each day and they don’t have to worry about their place of employment as a target for some sort of enforcement action.”
A video of the press conference can be found on the IDA website.
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