A September 16 article on the Politico website caught my eye because of its Jerome, Idaho, dateline. It is not often that my home county gets national coverage, so I obviously had to read the article. It was written by Susan Ferriss, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, and titled How Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Threatens to Choke Idaho’s Dairy Industry.
The article points out that Idaho has become one of the nation’s top milk-producing states, with 2012 direct sales by dairy producers and processors in the amount of $10.4 billion. In 2015, Idaho dairies employed about 8,100 workers statewide and their work supported 3,700 dairy-processing jobs, as well as 27,600 jobs in other businesses. Idaho’s producers of cheese and yogurt are reliant on the dairy industry, which in turn relies on a steady supply of labor.
The problem is that dairy jobs are not particularly desirable and dairymen have a hard time finding reliable local labor to keep their operations running. Most home-grown folks won’t do the work. Because of that, the dairy industry has come to rely upon foreign-born workers. Some of them are lawfully in the country, but many are not. It is estimated that 85-90% of Idaho’s dairy workers are foreign-born and about 70% of those are undocumented.
How did we get here, what are the problems, and what should be done to fix them? When I was growing up on the family farm near Eden in the 1950s and 60s, it was just assumed that farm kids and local hired hands would do the hard work. However, beginning in the 70s, farmers had increasing difficulty in finding reliable workers to handle that work. Workers started coming from south of the border to fill the gap, some of them with temporary work permits but many without any documentation. The northward flow of workers increased after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers went out of business because they could not price-compete with U.S farmers. Many headed North to get farm jobs that Americans did not want.
Many of the undocumented workers put down roots in Idaho because of the difficulty of going back and forth each year. They had children in this country who became U.S. citizens. Those who came seasonally had to do a lot of paperwork and there were generally not enough temporary permits to fill the need on Idaho farms. Temporary permits did not allow workers to spend the entire year, which was a necessity for work on the dairies.
With the increased enforcement effort by the current administration, there is concern in the dairy industry that essential workers will be deported. Workers are concerned about losing their jobs and having their families broken apart. Some say the workers could not have expected to be able to stay, but it is more complicated than that. For decades, the government and U.S. employers have known what was going on but little was done to develop a policy of allowing sufficient foreign labor into the country to meet the needs of agricultural employers. If undocumented workers are deported in order to get in line for legal entry, what are the farmers and dairymen to do in the meantime? You can’t just mothball the dairies, cheese plants and yogurt factory, while waiting years for papers to be shuffled and processed for legal entry. Idaho’s multi-billion-dollar dairy industry depends upon year-round workers.
And, the problem is not confined to Idaho or its farms. There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. About 800,000 of them came as children–the so-called Dreamers. Many of the undocumented people have children who are American citizens, which complicates the situation as to who is subject to deportation. With the low unemployment rate in our country, deportation will injure many employers, as well as the national economy. The American Action Forum estimates that deporting all undocumented immigrants would cost between four and six hundred billion dollars and reduce the country’s gross domestic product by one trillion dollars. And, quite frankly, about everyone knows that such a mass deportation won’t happen.
So, what should we do? Our members of Congress need to develop backbones and deal with the problem. Former President Ronald Reagan inspired Congress to deal with comprehensive immigration reform in 1986 and the current situation cries for similar action now. If members of the House and Senate were more interested in solving difficult national problems, rather than keeping their jobs, the immigration problem could be resolved. That would give employers and workers certainty and also contribute to economic growth in Idaho and the country as a whole.