Dairy interests say the decision could spawn ‘copycat’ legislation in other states, and significantly affect employers who knowingly or unknowingly employ undocumented workers.
Dairy interests across the country are voicing concern that last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold Arizona’s mandated E-Verify law will encourage other states to adopt the federal electronic employee verification program.
And that could reveal more undocumented workers in farming operations, forcing dairies to lose much-needed employees.
“I am concerned that the decision invites other states to copy Arizona,” said Julie Maurer, a dairy producer from Newton, Wis. “As employers, we take steps to ensure that we’re hiring eligible workers, but if E-Verify goes into effect, then potentially some workers milking cows and providing safe, affordable food for America will no longer continue working.”
In a 5-3 vote May 26, the U.S. Supreme Court
upheld the legality of Arizona’s law requiring all employers in the state to use E-Verify, the federal electronic system that checks job candidates’ immigration status. In the case, known as Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting
, the court also upheld the Arizona law that revokes the licenses of businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
In Arizona, where immigration is “a very toxic subject,” dairy producer Ross Tappan said he had hoped the Supreme Court would rule differently. “I would prefer to see something else done” regarding immigration-related laws, he said, “maybe not as drastic as the 1986 amnesty program. I don’t have the answers, but it is a tough situation.”
A major percentage of dairy employees in U.S. are thought to be undocumented.
“If every dairy in Arizona has to use E-Verify, we’re going to lose a lot of employees,” said Tappan, who implemented E-Verify on his dairy three years ago. “Dairies will have to downsize or try to get employees from their neighbors’ dairies. It’s not like there’s a long line of Americans waiting to take these jobs.”
While still analyzing the decision and its implications, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) said it was disappointed by the Supreme Court's ruling.
“But we must understand that Court’s decision doesn’t support any of the other sections of the Arizona legislation,” NMPF spokesman Chris Galen said. “This rule is solely on state employer sanctions laws. The decision does not give states or local governments a blank check to pass any and every immigration law.”
“Whiting will have a significant impact on immigration, particularly as it relates to employers who either knowingly or unknowingly employ undocumented workers,” Straub said.
For now, Whiting will only impact employers in Arizona and the eight other states that have similar laws on the books: Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. “In the future,” says Straub, “Whiting is certain to spawn copycat legislation in other states.”
California is one state, however, that's not likely to see an impact from the decision, said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen. The Golden State doesn’t have the same laws regarding E-Verify or business license issuances as Arizona. “We could see some copycat effort in California from conservative legislators, but I can’t see it passing or the governor signing it,” Marsh said.
Still, the concerns raised among dairy interests point to “the need for real immigration reform and AgJOBS to bring clarity to the immigration issue,” added Marsh.
Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA), said Idaho was among those states that are considering legislation to mandate the E-Verify system. IDA opposes required use of the federal electronic system.
“People may talk about the high success rate of E-Verify, but it is not everything it’s touted to be,” Naerebout said. “It has a 60% failure rate. It doesn’t catch all improper documentation and gives a false sense of security.”
Last week’s Supreme Court decision does not apply to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 legislation
, signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010. That law requires anyone whom police suspect of being in the country illegally to produce "an alien registration document," such as a green card, or other proof of citizenship such as a passport or Arizona driver's license.
Straub encouraged producers in the nine states affected by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to familiarize themselves with the specific provisions of their state law and how it might impact their business.
“Producers elsewhere should be vocal with state legislators about the negative impact that the passage of such a law will have on business,” he added. “In the end, all producers should continue to pressure their federal representatives to resolve the problem in the right manner and place: in Washington, D.C., with federal immigration reform.”
“The real issue is that our federal government needs to pass immigration reform, rather than allowing rules to be made on a state-by-state basis,” agrees Maurer, whose Wisconsin family dairy milks 1,050 cows three times a day.
“That reform must include a guest worker program so that, when our industry finds itself in a situation like we are now, whereby people don’t want to take the jobs we have to offer, there is an option,” Maurer says. “The migrant worker programs that are in place today cannot be used by the dairy industry because our labor needs are year-round rather than seasonal in nature. This is critical to ensuring that as a country, we are providing ourselves with a wholesome, nutritious food supply, rather than having to source our food supply from other countries.”