Colorado Farmers Want Help on Foreign-Born Workers

12:48PM Dec 06, 2014
Immigrant worker at dairy 2011
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There is nothing in President Barack Obama's recently announced package of executive actions on immigration that directly reassures farmers and ranchers they'll have efficient access to foreign-born labor.

If anything, it seems the actions might have muddied already less-than-clear waters, according to the Colorado Farm Bureau.

"When you look at it, there's nothing specifically in there to help agriculture," said Brent Boydston, vice president for public policy for the bureau. "It kind of brings up more questions than answers."

If nothing else, however, said Olathe farmer John Harold, the executive actions seem to be ready to force the hands of the Republicans who now run Congress.

"I don't think the Republicans can ignore it anymore," said Harold, who depends on the ability to bring in labor to deliver Olathe sweet corn to markets across the United States every late summer. "They got rewarded in the election by doing nothing. It amazed me that they did nothing."

Obama's actions, though, don't look to be immediately beneficial to Talbott Farms in Palisade, said Harry Talbott.

"I don't think it's going to make much difference," Talbott said. "We've been wanting a stable workforce for 60 years. We should go back to the old Green Card program. That worked."

Harold and Talbott each have different desires for an immigration fix.

Harold wants a better H2A program, one that would be more efficient than the current iteration and which would allow immigrants and their families to obtain three-year visas and allow him to give them a stipend for housing.

That would be easier than dealing with multiple inspections of a dormitory he built for about $500,000, Harold said.

"I've had 11 agencies inspect that dormitory," Harold said.

He'd just as soon pay the stipend and allow his workers to live where they wish, Harold said.

For the Talbott family, a guest-worker program for seasonal workers would make more sense.

"The problem is that when they have legal status, they gravitate to year-round work, not seasonal jobs," said Bruce Talbott, one of the sons of Harry Talbott.

That means additional stress on schools and other public facilities, Bruce Talbott said.

Many of the Talbotts' seasonal employees have their own farms in Mexico that are helped by the money they earn in the United States. "It's a nice fit," Bruce Talbott said.

That the Talbotts and Harold might have different approaches underscores the need for flexibility, even within the agricultural industry, Boydston said.

"The Talbotts' needs are different than for a dairyman, which are different for a sheep grower, which are different than from a feedlot," Boydston said.

The Senate immigration bill contained much of the flexibility needed by various agricultural sectors, but its fate is now more in question than before, Boydston said.

The Senate had passed a bill and the House was working on one, Boydston said.

"We had two knowns and they were very different, but they were knowns," Boydston said.

Those "knowns" are now in doubt and, "The unknown we're facing is very concerning," Boydston said.

It's unlikely that anyone affected — from farmers and ranchers to the immigrants themselves — will do anything until they know better what happens next, Boydston said.

The number of people who stand to be affected could be as high as 100,000 in Colorado, according to the Pew Research Center.

Obama's executive actions could affect as many as 5 million people nationwide and are geared to preventing the deportation of young people and their families.