Immigration Reform’s Bare-Knuckle Brawl

Published on: 13:42PM Apr 19, 2013

For dairy farmers, the key is to stay positive, informed and engaged.

It would be easy to get caught up in irrational exuberance surrounding the Senate’s "Gang of Eight" immigration reform that was announced last week.

"Immigration reform has entered the promised land, with dairy at the top of the list," says one prominent immigration attorney, who will remain unnamed on the chance that things turn sour. The announcement, despite months and years of debate in Congress and the country, is really just the beginning salvo.

Don’t get me wrong. The Senate package is a huge win for U.S. dairy farmers. "Dairy will be the single biggest winner in agriculture," says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

But there’s still a long, hard road to go.

Among the provisions:

• A "blue card" that allows existing, currently undocumented workers to remain at their jobs. To qualify, they will have to demonstrate they have been employed for 100 days between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2012 on a farm, pass a background check, have a clean criminal record and pay a $100 fine.

• To achieve permanent residency status, employees must work at least 100 days a year for five years or at least 150 days a year for three years. They must show that they have paid all taxes, have not been convicted of any serious crime, and pay a $400 fine.

• The package also provides a provision for "future workers," that allows dairy farmers to legally recruit new foreign-born workers to replace those that return home.

• The program would also lessen the chance, at least in the first five years of implementation, of Immigration and Custom Enforcement raids and document sweeps. Eventually, farmers would have to verify identification documentation through the E-Verify system, but that would likely not come into play for five years.

• The reforms would also establish minimum wages for dairy workers: $11.09/hour in 2015 and $11.37/hour in 2016. These would then be annually indexed, with wages increased between 1.5% and 2.5%. Famers would also have to provide housing or pay a housing allowance —generally in the range of an additional $1/hour.

Dairy farmers might nitpick some of these provisions, but they’ll so do at their peril. The details of the ag package were carefully negotiated among a laundry list of ag organizations all now members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition.

Members include Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, the National Milk Producers Federation, regional dairy organizations, and—most importantly to the compromise—the United Farm Workers. Keeping this coalition intact is critical.

If the 844-page "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" isn’t shredded in the Senate, it faces a bare-knuckle brawl in the House of Representatives. Will it survive? "Who the hell knows," one Washington lobbyist told me last week. "Nothing in Washington is easy."

For dairy farmers, the key is to stay positive, informed and engaged. When the time comes, dairy farmers must personally contact their legislators to make certain legislators understand dairy farmers support the legislation. Congressmen and women must understand there will be campaign funding and electoral consequences if their votes do not support immigration reform.

That sounds crass, but it is now how the game is played.

More detail on the Senate package can be read here

You can read the full bill here

Note: Western dairy editor Catherine Merlo also contributed to this report.