“Eighty percent of the Latino population out here in northwest Iowa is undocumented,” estimated one dairy farmer in the area who knows the Nunes family and often sees them while buying hay in nearby Rock Valley. “It would be great if we had enough unemployed Americans in northwest Iowa to milk the cows. But there’s just not. We have a very tight labor pool around here.” This person said the system was broken, leaving dairy farmers no choice. “I would love it if all my guys could be legal.”
The farmer explained that all the dairies require their workers to provide evidence of their legal status and pay the required state and federal taxes. But it’s an open secret that the system is built on easily obtained fraudulent documents. “I just look at the document—Hey, this looks like a good driver’s license, permanent resident card, whatever the case is—and that’s what you go with,” the farmer said. A second northwest-Iowa dairy farmer who knows the Nunes family told me, “They show you a Social Security card, we take out Social Security taxes. Where’d they get the card? I have no idea.” I asked what the chances are that a farm the size of NuStar uses only fully legal dairy workers. “It’s next to impossible,” the first dairy farmer said. “There’s no dang way.” This was speculation, but here is the logic that informed it: Most workers start at fourteen or fifteen dollars an hour, the first farmer said. If dairies had to use legal labor, they would likely have to raise that to eighteen or twenty dollars, and many dairies wouldn’t survive. “People are going to go broke,” the farmer said. The story was similar in the poultry, meatpacking, and other agricultural industries in the area.
What this person was describing was hard to wrap my head around. In the heart of Steve King’s district, a place that is more pro-Trump than almost any other patch of America, the economy is powered by workers that King and Trump have threatened to arrest and deport.