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Immigration and Dairy: Got Reform in 2011?

Feb 14, 2011

The issue is simply too important to ignore, so here is a snapshot of the proposed solution, the political reality and what you can do to protect your business in the meantime.

Erich Straub   CopyBy Erich C. Straub, immigration attorney
The dust has begun to settle from the November 2010 elections, so Washington politicians again are focusing on an issue that never seems to get resolved: immigration reform. Based on the failures of the past, one could understand such talk being dismissed by the dairy industry. But the issue is simply too important to ignore, so here is a snapshot of the proposed solution, the political reality and what you can do to protect your business in the meantime.
There is one bill that solves the short and long-term labor and immigration needs of dairy: the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or “AgJOBS” as it is more commonly known. AgJOBS creates a route for undocumented workers to file for temporary lawful residence or a “blue card.” These same workers could eventually qualify for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. The bill would also streamline the H-2A visa process, currently the only avenue available for the agricultural industry to obtain “seasonal” foreign workers. Significantly, AgJOBS would make the H-2A visa available for the first time to dairy. Under the current H-2A rules, dairy workers are not eligible because they normally do not meet the definition of seasonal.
AgJOBS accomplishes two important goals for dairy:
  1. Legalizing the current, well-trained workforce on many operations;
  2. Creating access to a future, legal immigrant labor force. The bill enjoys bi-partisan support and in the past has had enough votes to win approval if based on a simple majority.
The Politics
So why hasn’t AgJOBS become law?There are two main reasons. First, in our present political environment, winning takes 60 votes in the U.S. Senate rather than 51. Second, AgJOBS has always been packaged with “comprehensive” immigration reform, which contains proposals that are more controversial. In the aftermath of the November elections, political analysts were quick to sound the death knell for reform in 2011. The subsequent defeat of the DREAM Act in the lame-duck session of Congress only darkened those projections.
Given such a dire outlook, something funny happened last week. As reported on, Democratic and Republican Senators started talking about reform again. Why the sudden charge? The simple answer may be that both parties have begun to position themselves for the 2012 election. Despite big gains in November, Republicans are now wrestling with the reality that political strategy in a presidential election is markedly different than in the mid-terms. Democrats, particularly President Obama, are eager to deliver on past promises of immigration reform. Both parties are targeting the same demographic of voters: Hispanics, whom most political analysts agree will be an even bigger factor in 2012.
The Challenge Ahead
So what can those in dairy do in such a challenging political environment? First, you can protect yourself and your business by being mindful of the current law enforcement trends. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has abandoned large-scale, spectacular raids in favor of I-9 audits or “silent raids.” Make sure you have detailed and standardized I-9 procedures in place because the government again is expanding the number of audits for the coming year. Second, make sure you call, write or meet with your congressional representatives and make your opinions known, particularly if that person is newly elected. The future of your business, your industry and your community may depend on it.
Erich C. Straub is an immigration lawyer who practices in Wisconsin and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, SuperLawyers, and U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Firms. Straub has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. on immigration, and frequently advises Wisconsin Dairy Farmers on the topic. He has traveled Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials regarding immigration reform, and in 2008, the Milwaukee Business Journal described him as a “national leader on the federal immigration issue.” Contact him at (414) 224-8472 or
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