Milking Immigration Reform

May 13, 2010 07:00 PM

By Jim Dickrell, editor, Dairy Today
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer might have done dairy producers across the country a huge favor when she signed her state's controversial immigration legislation a few weeks ago.
The law requires anyone whom police suspect of being in Arizona illegally to produce "an alien registration document,” such as a green card, an Arizona driver's license or other proof of citizenship. The law is likely unconstitutional and created a firestorm of opposition from immigration rights groups, churches and Democrats.
Even her home state newspaper, the Arizona Republic, chastised Gov. Brewer and a laundry list of state and national politicians for failing to protect the state's best interests. Conversely, a majority of polled Americans actually think the law is a good thing.
This maelstrom of opinion has certainly jump-started the immigration debate. (For five myth busters on immigration, click here.) President Barack Obama had promised during the presidential campaign to pass meaningful reform in the first year of his presidency. But he got a little distracted dealing with the Great Recession and health care reform. Gov. Brewer's signature on the Arizona legislation refocused everyone's attention.
For dairy producers, immigration reform has been front and center for years. Even as the government has backed off on Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids under the Obama administration, every dairy with workers of dubious documentation (and even legal documentation) is "one I-9 audit away from chaos,” says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform.
Immigration issues have dominated recent 2012 farm bill hearings in Idaho and California. "At both hearings, spontaneously, the majority of witnesses raised immigration as a serious issue,” Regelbrugge says. "One witness testified that if immigration reform goes unresolved, the farm bill doesn't matter.”
Some readers of this column argue that illegal aliens are a big part of dairy's problem. They say that without such workers, large dairies can't function and the milk surplus disappears.
This type of reasoning is shortsighted and narrow-minded. First, dairies of all sizes struggle to find willing workers. The Great Recession has alleviated that to some degree, yes. But you can bet as soon as recovery comes, the vast majority of the locals who took dairy jobs will migrate to something easier.
Second, the folks whom dairies hire all present documentation upon hiring. Dairies have little choice but to accept the documentation presented, and then must wait months for those documents to clear government verification.
Third, the resurgence of the dairy industry in the Midwest—from South Dakota to the eastern Corn Belt—happened largely thanks to immigrant labor. Five to 10 years ago, dairy was in decline across the Midwest as older farmers steadily retired. But once larger dairies came in, the bleeding stopped. Processors started reinvesting in existing facilities, and even started building new ones. That hadn't happened for 30 years.
Fourth, dairies pay competitive wages. In the High Plains of Texas, cattle feeders complain the new dairies there increased worker wages some 20%. Plus all employees, legal and illegal, pay income taxes, Social Security and Medicare—whether they're in a position to collect on the latter two or not.
No one is arguing for open borders and no documentation. Clearly, we need strong border security. But the best way to achieve that is to provide a rational, verifiable documentation system so that folks who want to come here to work can do so legally.
Whether the politicians can get that done in a highly volatile congressional election year is, frankly, doubtful. The Democrats see this as an opportunity to propose legislation that the Republicans can't possibly support, yet paint them as anti-Hispanic. The Republicans must placate their base, which demands "no amnesty” for the 12 million or so illegals already here. Post-election in 2011 could be even more polarizing, depending on how many seats the Republicans pick up.
Perhaps the best hope is incremental change. AgJobs, with its earned legalization process and revised H-2A temporary worker permits, is one option. Coupled with tightened border security, it could offer agriculture and rural America some relief to the immigration crisis. To achieve this, rural area politicians will have to leave the bickering behind to become statesmen and stateswomen. It could happen. And if it does, thank you, Arizona.

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