This immigration story takes place far from the southern border and actually hits rather close to home for me, since it’s set in upstate New York. What’s that you say? We don’t have an illegal immigrant problem in the northeast? Think again. Apparently the use of illegal farm labor is still all the rage up here, but it just doesn’t get the same sort of press coverage. Particularly hard hit by a lack of “comprehensive immigration reform” are the dairy farmers.
When Mike McMahon’s Latino employees need to go to the bank, the pharmacy or the grocery store, he makes sure someone drives them to town, waits while they run errands, and then brings them safely back to his dairy farm.
Even then, there is no guarantee law enforcement in their small, rural community won’t spot the workers, ask for their IDs, and put them on a path toward deportation if they cannot prove they are here legally. It is a risk that dairy farmers in this agricultural region have faced for years, but it is hitting them harder as immigration reform languishes in Washington and the nation’s demand for milk-heavy products like Greek yogurt soars.
“It’s just crazy,” said McMahon, who has several hundred cows at his farm more than 200 miles north of New York City.
“I’m a lifelong Republican,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m telling you, there are days when I think about switching.”
Reporters interviewed a number of farmers who complained that they couldn’t get the “locals” to sign on to do the dirty, manual jobs which are required on a dairy farm. Also, there are regulations which allow bringing in legal immigrants with temporary guest worker visas, but those are only useful for agricultural work during harvest or planting season. Dairy farms run year round, so those types of guest workers are not viable. Still, there’s a bit of denial of reality when they come right out and admit that they are breaking the law.
Without new immigration laws, he and other farmers say, the nation will lose dairy producers, because farmers will switch to growing crops whose workers are eligible for temporary guest-worker visas.
“The U.S. dairy industry absolutely cannot survive without this,” said Dale, a dairy farmer who has moved toward robotic milking to avoid the labor problem. Like many dairy farmers, he did not want his full name or his farm’s name used because he was concerned that immigration officials would target his business.
There aren’t many cases where common ground is found on the immigration reform question, but this actually might be one of them. If we already have agricultural workers who have qualified for and are issued temporary visas for agricultural work, switching that to a year long visa contingent on the sponsorship of a farm owner who is employing them twelve months per year might be doable on a limited scale.
But I’m still stuck on the idea that we can’t find workers to do these jobs. As one of the farmers interviewed in the article states, he’s been paying the dairy workers in his employ an average of $2K per month plus housing on the farm with all utilities paid for. (Also meals in some cases.) Particularly in a tough economy, we can’t find citizens to take that deal? I worked on family farms in the summer growing up doing exactly that sort of work from time to time. It’s hard, no doubt about it. But it’s an honest job, and a lot better than starving. Perhaps the farmers need to raise their milk prices slightly and bump up the wages a bit? I don’t know, but it really seems like this could all be accomplished without being “forced” to hire illegal aliens.