Because dairy operations are not seasonal, they’re prevented from relying on existing federal visa programs and often rely on foreign-born workers.
Tactics are causing fear and major disruptions of day-to-day operations, state lawmakers say.
Labor issues have put New York dairies in the crosshairs of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--and a powerful group of legislators has stepped up to defend the state’s dairy producers.
On July 1, 2014, New York’s two U.S. senators and nine of its congressional members wrote to ICE, citing their concerns with the federal agency’s aggressive tactics on dairies. They requested that ICE improve its communication and cooperation with the state’s dairy farmers. The letter was signed by U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and congressional members Chris Collins, Tom Reed, Bill Owens, Chris Gibson, Sean Patrick Maloney, Richard Hanna, Dan Maffei, Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter.
"In recent months, we have heard from a number of dairy farmers across New York who have experienced aggressive raids and tactics that are causing both fear and major disruptions of day-to-day operations," they wrote. "Many of the raids occur without any notice to the farmer, and in many cases farmers are never contacted after the workers were detained."
In fact, nearly a dozen ICE or border patrol raids took place on New York dairies in April and May of this year, says Bob Gray, dairy policy advisor to Northeast Dairy Farmer Cooperatives. Most of the raids occurred in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, where some of the state’s largest dairies sit. New York is the nation’s third-largest milk-producing state, with about 4,800 dairies.
Gray, a group of New York dairy producers and other members of the state’s ag community met in Batavia, N.Y., on July 24 with representatives of ICE. Members of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) staff were present as well. A number of the dairy producers in the meeting had been targets of ICE raids.
"We had a very frank discussion about the aggressive actions on dairies," Gray says.
New York dairies, like their counterparts across the U.S., require a consistent labor force each day. The legislators’ letter noted that because dairy operations are not seasonal, they’re prevented from relying on existing federal visa programs and often rely on foreign-born workers.
"Agriculture requires a steady work force," the letter added. "Our farmers wake up every morning not knowing if they will have the labor needed to get through the day."
Some success has resulted from the recent meetings with ICE. A working group has been formed between New York’s agricultural community, which includes its fruit and vegetable sector, and the Department of Homeland Security to improve the lines of communication. Gray and his group have requested that ICE provide dairy producers with appropriate contact information "so they’ll know who to talk to if further incidents occur," says Gray.
More meetings will be held this fall. Few dairy producers want to participate in the ICE meetings, however, out of fear they’ll be targeted, Gray adds.
Have the meetings with federal officials helped the state’s dairy producers? "I’m encouraged, but the jury is still out," he says.