Without immigrant workers, who will milk the cows?

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1:30 a.m., June 11: a red SUV glides down the streets of a small Midwestern town, calling attention to itself in the wee hours of the morning because of loud music blaring. Inside are six Hispanic men in their late teens or early 20s, headed home after attending a Quinceanera (celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday) earlier in the evening.

Before they leave town, they are stopped by a police officer who objects to the loud music. The officer asks each of them for identification. Two reply that they don’t have any, and the other four produce false ID. All are hauled off to jail. They call the manager of the dairy where they work, and at 3:30 a.m. the manager arrives at the jail and gets two of them — the men with no ID — released. The other four are kept in jail on a charge of false identification until bail is set a couple of days later.

Meanwhile, the dairy is thrown into a crisis because four of its best workers are in jail. Two are milkers; one runs the maternity pen on the day shift, and the other is the leader of the hospital pen and does fresh-cow work, including DA surgeries. With the workers unavailable that Sunday and Monday, all workers must report — no time off for anyone. 

This is a true story, only the names of the town and the dairy have been withheld because of possible pending legal action. (More details appear later in this article.) The story helps illustrate the difficult and precarious situation that many dairies find themselves in today regarding immigrant labor.

With Congress now debating immigration reform, it is time for you to impress on your elected representatives how important immigrant labor is to the farming economy. Let your voice be heard. A lot is at stake, because if the wrong steps are taken, you or your neighbors could lose a significant portion of your workforce.

Apprehension

The nation finds itself divided on the issue of illegal immigration. On the one hand, because the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, many people believe that those who come here to make a better life for themselves should be welcomed. But others counter that the U.S. is a nation of legal immigrants who waited several years and worked through the system to achieve their status. 

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last December that would make it tougher for illegal immigrants to remain in this country. The bill must be reconciled with a less-restrictive Senate version, and that could lead to political stalemate. But politicians are a fickle lot, and any indication that the American people want a tougher immigration policy may lead to a crackdown.  

This, in turn, has created apprehension among the people who employ immigrant workers, including many dairy farms.

Tom Maloney says in the 18 years he has done human-resource management work at Cornell University, he has never seen farmers as nervous about a labor issue as they  are about immigration and the effect it could have on their hiring practices.  

“They don’t want to think what life would be like without Hispanic workers — especially now that they have experienced the work ethic and reliability of these workers,” Maloney says. Yet, because of the immigration-reform debate, many farms are aware “that if the wrong things were to happen, they may not have a workforce,” he adds.

Many dairy managers are asking themselves, “Will I have a workforce tomorrow?”

Reliance on immigrants

Of the farms in New York state with 500 or more cows, probably 80 percent or more employ Hispanic workers, Maloney estimates. And, interest in Hispanic workers is even growing among dairies with 100 or fewer cows, he adds. 

That observation jives with what other people around the country are saying. Carl Duley, extension agent in Buffalo County, Wis., says he would agree that 80 percent or more of the dairies in Wisconsin with 500 or more cows employ Hispanic workers, although to his knowledge no formal research has been done on the subject in his state.

John Rosenow employs eight Hispanic workers out of a total workforce of 18 at his 550-cow dairy near Cochrane, Wis.  He says if he could no longer employ Hispanic workers on his farm, he would have to shut down.

“I would have to sell the cows,” he says, adding he wouldn’t be the only farm in Wisconsin facing that situation. 

When Rosenow hired his first Hispanic employee in 1998, he did so reluctantly. But his perception has changed dramatically over the years. Now he wonders “why in the heck” he didn’t hire Hispanic employees sooner. “I love their work ethic,” he adds.

Other employers agree wholeheartedly.

“They are excellent workers,” says the parlor manager at a dairy in the central plains. (Editor’s note: Perhaps to underscore the nervousness that many dairies feel on the subject, the parlor manager’s boss —- upon checking an advance copy of this article for accuracy —- asked that we not use his farm employees’ comments after all. He was concerned that since the article refers to another dairy experiencing legal issues — the six workers who got put in jail — an inference is made that some dairies are hiring illegal aliens, and he did not want to be associated with that. He said the policy at his dairy is for every employee to have valid ID and proper documentation. However, if the employee supplies false ID,  “that’s beyond our knowledge” and control, he said. Furthermore, he said it is not the policy at his dairy “to bail guys out of jail.”  To be named in this article, he said, could put a “big bull’s-eye” on his dairy in terms of public perception and possible immigration enforcement.)

Lingering threat

Despite the proven reliability of Hispanic workers — and their importance to the overall dairy economy — there’s a lingering threat that these workers could be lost to immigration-enforcement activities.

For now, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) seems to be taking a hands-off approach to the issue of illegal immigrants on dairy farms.

Jorge Estrada, an expert on workforce-management issues involving Hispanics and owner of Leadership Coaching International in Puyallup, Wash., says he is not aware of any INS raids on dairies except a story he heard one time at a conference involving a dairy in the northeastern U.S.  “That’s the only situation across the whole U.S. that I have been aware of,” he says.

Yet, despite the seeming reluctance of the INS to go after dairy workers — for now — Estrada agrees a level of nervousness does exist among many dairy producers.

Remember the situation where Hispanic dairy workers got put in jail for displaying false identification….   That was one such incidence where a dairy farm almost lost four of its best workers, and still faces the threat of losing them permanently because the INS was contacted by local law-enforcement authorities. 

“I was a fax away” from losing them, says the manager of the dairy where the Hispanics worked. If INS had faxed back to the police to hold the workers further, there’s no telling what might have happened. But, as it turned out, the INS never responded. 

The manager goes on to say that some towns in the state seem more Hispanic-friendly than others, so it can be tricky to know exactly which towns to avoid — kind of like walking through a mine field.

And furthermore, had it been six Anglos in the car with the loud music blaring, would they have been asked for ID, like the Hispanics were? No, the dairy manager suggests. The police officer probably would have issued a warning and let the men go on their way.

So, despite an uneasy calm, there remains some degree of apprehension that things could get worse before the immigration debate settles down. (Please see “Call to action” and “Change attitudes in your community” for things you can do to ensure access to immigrant workers.)


Call to action

You are busy and probably don’t have time to be writing a lot of letters to Congress.

Yet, because immigration reform can negatively impact your business, you need to let your congressmen know your concerns. And, Republican House members are the ones who need to hear from you the most, because they are the ones taking the toughest stance through a bill passed last December (H.R. 4437).

In addition, let the Bush Administration know your concerns. Write a letter to either the U.S. Department of Agriculture or to the White House, says Bob Gray, executive director of the Council of Northeast Farmer Cooperatives.

Be sure to emphasize the importance of immigrant workers to the dairy industry from a business perspective.

  • Dairy farms need a year-round, stable workforce.
  • In many cases, dairies are unable to get the workers they need from the local communities.

“I look at this from a business standpoint,” Gray says. “This is a business proposition. Farmers need a stable labor force year-round.”


Change attitudes in your community

Besides writing letters to congressmen, dairy producers can  work in their local communities to change attitudes toward immigrant workers.

“We’re trying to change attitudes of people in our area,” says John Rosenow, dairy producer from Cochrane, Wis., and one of the founders of the Puentes/Bridges program in Wisconsin.

One example is an upcoming trip to Mexico. Various agribusinesses have donated money toward the trip so one, perhaps two, law-enforcement officers from Wisconsin can go along to learn more about where the immigrant workers come from and why they come to the U.S., says Shaun Judge Duvall, director of the Puentes/Bridges program.

Over the past five years, Puentes/Bridges has sponsored six such trips to Mexico, primarily for dairy producers, but also for people from the local communities.

In addition, Duvall recommends:

  • Whenever you hire an immigrant worker, have someone from the dairy take the worker around town — to the post office, the bank and other locations — so the locals know who he is and where he is employed.
  • Be available to answer questions in the community so everyone knows the importance of the workers to the local economy.

 



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