may soon change
The problems dairy farmers have with federal immigration policies may finally be coming to an end, as both the Senate and House are preparing legislation that may help the flow of immigrant labor.
"It's an excellent time for immigration in the dairy business. After years of wandering in the desert the signs are excellent for some real reform," says Erich Straub, an immigration attorney from Milwaukee who has worked with many dairy farmers since he channeled his law practice toward immigration issues.
The Senate bill that is nearing introduction, he said, is one with bipartisan support and a similar bill is forthcoming in the House.
"The wonderful thing about these bills is that they both recognize the dairy industry."
Straub told Wisconsin State Farmer that he believes these changes are coming about because of the way Latinos voted in the last presidential election. "There was a realization on the part of the GOP that if this continued it would cost them the presidency every election cycle.
"There were other factors in its favor, but I absolutely think this was the tipping point. One of the consequences of the November election was that the Latino vote will be too powerful to ignore."
In recent years the most strident opponents of any kind of immigration reform, according to Straub, have been the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Some Democrats have opposed it too, because of their allegiance to labor unions, a faction that opposes bringing foreign workers into the United States.
He sees that lawmakers now can look past those parts of their constituencies and see their way clear to find some middle ground on immigration.
The bills that are about to be introduced, he said, mention dairy farmers because they are a group of producers who have not been helped by current immigration programs like H-2A, which allows some farmers to get seasonal workers.
"Dairy has a high percentage of undocumented immigrant workers and that's been going on for some time because it is not a seasonal job," Straub said.
The Senate bill specifically mentions dairy.
Producers have been very concerned that enforcement action against their labor force could cripple their business.
The Senate measure proposes a legalization program for the current immigrant workforce and agriculture will have its own program. "Agriculture is speaking with one voice."
The second problem being addressed in the pending legislation is future workers - those who will be needed as current workers move on and the dairy business keeps flourishing.
The program will likely provide for a "portable visa" so a guest worker could move from one dairy farm to another. "What that does is address some of the concerns of unions about worker conditions. If conditions are bad at one farm the workers can move to another and there will still be labor protections that worker advocates fought for."
The authors of these bills have heard the dairy industry's complaint that the H-2A program doesn't work because dairy isn't a seasonal enterprise.
"They've heard the voice of the dairy industry - that one size doesn't fit all. Congress is beginning to recognize that there are different needs in agriculture."
Even though the Latino vote in the last election became the catalyst for this new Congressional action, Straub said Congress is also finally realizing that it's not just a Latino issue - for many it's a business issue, "it's a dairy issue."
For the last seven or eight years he has been working with dairy farm operators and taking them to Washington to talk to lawmakers and their staffs about how immigration policy affected their operations.
"It was amazing to see the eyes open of staffers and Congressional representatives. I mean, it's one thing to hear from an immigration attorney, but when they heard from farmers, they really began to understand this issue."
Most producers have similar stories, he said. "They struggled with labor issues and many resisted hiring immigrant labor. They feared for their health or for the vitality of their business.
"When they did finally begin hiring immigrant labor they tell me it stabilized their business and they began to have a decent quality of life as a dairy producer."
Much of this transition came in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, he said and farmers have struggled over the last eight-10 years as 9-11 reactions tightened border security issues. "We've seen that play out in many ways."
The Real ID Act in 2005 was a measure that required people to show proof of their immigration status in order to get a drivers license. A lot of states, including Wisconsin, got on board with that program and it resulted in many immigrants not attempting to renew their drivers licenses as they ran out.
More recently there have been I-9 compliance actions. Straub said he hasn't seen many raids on dairy producers. "More of an issue and a concern is a subpoena for I-9 records."
What typically happens in these cases is that workers are notified and then the workforce disappears. "It has become the enforcement tool of choice.
"Most dairy farmers have always wanted a legal workforce and they are aware of the issues with false identification. Many fear they are just one audit away from a major business crisis."
These kinds of enforcement actions can happen when workers that have gone into deportation proceedings name certain employers among the places they have worked.
Straub said he's encouraging dairy farmers to talk to their Congressional representatives about the pending legislation if it's important to their business.
He's never seen any evidence that lobbying in this way has caused dairy farms to be targeted for enforcement action and he believes lawmakers need to hear from business people who are impacted by immigration policies.
Part of the reason it's taken so long to break through to a solution in this area is that Congress has always heard from those who were vociferously opposed to immigration reform right away and they may not have heard from those who are going about running their business and how important this issue is to them.
Straub was a criminal defense lawyer who did a few immigration and family law cases here and there, but after the attacks of 9-11, 2001 he saw U.S. officials beginning to deport a lot of people and "decided there was a real need" for immigration law.
Sixty-70 percent of his clients are Spanish-speaking, but Straub said he has had clients from all parts of the world.
He expects to see the Senate bill by the end of March or the early part of April and the House bill on a similar timeline. "Then the fireworks will start."
He was part of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) annual business conference March 12-13 in Madison.