Farmers Need Solution to Immigration Challenge

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March 10,2017

Too many of the nation’s dairy farmers are facing an ongoing, daunting challenge:

finding enough American workers to fill jobs on their farms, even when they provide

wages higher than those paid by other local jobs. This “between a rock and hard

place” dilemma has grown more acute as the national unemployment rate has dropped

– and will likely get even more dire, now that U.S. Immigration and Customs

Enforcement has begun stepping up its efforts to locate and remove undocumented


That’s why NMPF has continued to drive home the point with lawmakers that it is

critical that any effort to solve the immigration quandary will require not just additional

law enforcement, but also a means to ensure that farm employers – including dairy

operations – have access to a legal, secure workforce.

This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to just a few large dairies in certain parts of

the country. To illustrate the extent of the concern, NMPF twice worked with

economists at Texas A&M during the past decade to assess the role played by foreignborn

workers in dairy production – and the potential consequences of not having those

employees. In its most recent national survey, the university researchers estimated that

150,000 employees worked on U.S. dairy farms as of 2014, and that approximately 51

percent of them were immigrants.

Because such a large volume of milk production depends on them, losing even just a

portion of foreign-born undocumented workers would have serious implications for both

farmers and consumers. In the worst-case scenario, a complete loss of immigrant labor

in dairy farming could cut U.S. economic output by $32 billion, resulting in 208,000

fewer jobs nationwide. Not only would farm workers be lost, but those further down the

value chain whose jobs are tied to crop, produce and livestock production would be at


The current environment is filled with a great deal of uncertainty and confusion about

the scope of the recent, stepped-up enforcement actions. I received a note last month

from a farmer in the Midwest who, after hearing of workers being deported from farms

in her state, expressed her growing level of concern:

“Our employees are very jittery. We’ve coordinated driving to grocery stores

and outlined ‘safe’ roadmaps (county & town roads) to get to the dentist, doctor

and grocery store. They’ve gotten their papers in order if they are deported so

that their children can be taken care of. They are scared, frustrated, and a little

angry. We as dairy farmers are too.”

Recognizing that the absence of a workable immigration policy is a threat to the

economic viability of dairy farms, NMPF continues to work with elected officials on

implementing a policy solution that adhere to two key principles:

1. Providing an affordable and efficient guest-worker program that ensures the

continued availability of immigrant labor for all of agriculture, including dairies; and

2. Permitting those currently employed or with employment history in the U.S. to

earn the right to work here legally, regardless of their current legal status.

Our point to elected officials is that, as important as border security and interior law

enforcement procedures are, such measures must be paired with a focus on current

and future agricultural labor needs. Creating a guest-worker program to bring in legal

employees will allow federal and state governments to focus resources on removing

bad actors from the U.S., and prevent the migration of others who are not coming here

for legitimate work opportunities.

The only current means of addressing domestic labor shortages in agriculture is the H-

2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural workforce program, intended to help

employers with short-term labor needs. Many jobs in farming and food processing are

not seasonal and thus can’t use the H-2A program at all – which is why dairy farmers

need another approach, not one centered on reforming H-2A.

Farm and ranch groups have collaborated in the past in formulating ideas for a new

national visa program that can provide a legal source of foreign-born workers to farm

employers. And we continue to reach out to the Administration and Congress in

support of workable policies to control our borders and provide a stable workforce.

Agriculture in America can’t grow without a reliable workforce. Immigrant workers are

an essential part of that picture today, and they must be part of it in the future. This is a

message we will continue to advance so that agriculture can help grow its contributions

to America’s economy.

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