Immigration reform may soon become reality thanks to a new push from a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators. For the nation’s dairy industry, the potential change to immigration laws could affect both small- and large-scale operations.
A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that more than 40 percent of the state’s dairy employees were immigrants, according to a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Experts speculate that up to 50 percent of immigrant workers in the agricultural industry are in the country illegally.
"It's not a surprise to any of us that some of the workers on dairy farms today are not legal. It's an uncomfortable situation for both them and their employers," Jim Holte, president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an interview.
Because dairy workers are needed year round – instead of seasonally, like migrant workers – foreign dairy employees are unable to quality for H-2A visas.
Now, after many believed that immigration would take a backseat to debt and gun control, a bipartisan group of eight Senators has backed a plan that puts agriculture-based worker concerns at the forefront.
According to a report from Reuters, the four-page outline released by the senators said that “agricultural workers who commit to the long-term stability of our nation's agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume."
Industry experts point that foreign workers play an important role in dairy operations, even in states where unemployment is high. Most Americans aren’t willing to milk cows or care for animals and instead prefer to work in office-based positions that are less physically strenuous.
A coalition of farm groups, including the National Milk Producers Federation, has proposed an 11-month visa for these workers. The proposal would require workers to return to their home country for 30 days, but there would be no limit to the number of times a worker could renew the visa.