The issue of immigration reform has taken on added significance due to the arrest of a New York dairy producer for allegedly harboring illegal aliens.

On March 30, John Barney was arrested following the death of a migrant worker on his Henderson, N.Y., farm and the detention of eight other workers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

According to a criminal complaint filed against Barney in U.S. District Court, the deceased worker suffered injuries to his head, neck and ribs, most likely sustained from a fall from a fence during dairying operations. A special agent with ICE says the death appears to be accidental in nature. ICE agents later determined that the deceased was a citizen of Guatemala and had illegally entered the United States. They interviewed other workers at the farm, and the workers allegedly stated that they, too, were citizens of Guatemala and were illegally in the U.S.

For more on that case, click here.

If meaningful immigration reform is going to occur, it needs to be this year because Congress will be reluctant to tackle any controversial issues in an election year in 2012.

That is the word from Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Milk Producers Federation.

Furthermore, Castaneda says the chances of anything passing will depend on how the issue is broached. If it’s about granting citizenship to immigrants already in this country, then the chances of anything passing is zero, he says. If, on the other hand, it’s about authorizing foreign workers to stay in this country on work permits, then the chances are better, he adds.

The key is to set up a system where immigrant dairy workers can come “out of the shadows” and register without worrying that someone will try to kick them out of the country, according to Castaneda. 

Dairy industry officials, realizing how important immigrant workers are to dairying operations in this country, have endorsed a measure that would authorize foreign dairy workers to remain in the U.S. for an initial period of three years, and give the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services the authority to approve a worker for an additional three-year period.

“It is time for leadership, not politics, on the issue of immigration in this great nation,” says dairy producer Marc Laribee, of Lowville, N.Y., located one county away from the farm that had the ICE activity. “The recent events surrounding a tragic event at a local agricultural business are evidence of a great need for a clear and unambiguous policy to be enacted and consistently enforced,” he says.

“The immigration policy of this nation is a complex and tangled web of laws and directives that are confusing and widely misunderstood. All too often, our immigration law is randomly and inconsistently enforced; often times, only as a show of government force or for the political gain of one side or the other.

“The people caught in the middle of this government malpractice are real. They are among the most hard-working and underappreciated people among us and deserve better treatment from those in positions of power who have been entrusted with the leadership of our nation,” Laribee says.