Solutions, dairy unity sought on immigration reform
By Dave Natzke
With dairy policy reform on hold, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) is ramping up attention on an issue affecting the day-to-day operations of many dairies – immigrant labor availability. And, even though the organization has been working on immigration reform with little success for the better part of a decade, current political will might make the timing right.
Several things have happened in recent months making immigration reform much more achievable than in the past, according to Jerry Kozak, NMPF president and CEO. Chief of those was lack of political support of Republicans by Hispanics in the voting booth last November, as well as interest in creation of a "legacy” as President Obama enters his second, and final, term.
“There’s continued pressure from the business community – including agriculture – that our current ‘don't ask, don’t tell’ employment system is broken,” Kozak said. “All of these things are aligning to create a more favorable political climate. There is light at the end of this tunnel.”
NMPF hosted a conference call, Jan. 16, to discuss recent developments on the issue. Among those is the formation of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), an organization seeking to ensure America’s farms, ranches and other agricultural operations have access to a stable and skilled workforce.” NMPF is one of 11 founding members of AWC.
“News on the immigration front has been discouraging for many years,” noted Mike McCloskey, chair of the NMPF’s immigration task force. Attempts in 2004 and 2007 failed, he said, and compounding the challenge, enforcement actions aimed employers and employees has escalated. ”Today is the best opportunity we've had in the last four years to tackle immigration reform once and for all.”
McCloskey said solving the issue is critical to the future of the U.S. dairy industry – and more.
“This issue is about ensuring that I am able to continue to produce milk in this country,” he said. “Our entire dairy industry, but particularly dairy farming, depends heavily on foreign workers to help producers produce milk in the United States.”
McCloskey said the issue went beyond the economic health of producers, to food supply and safety issues impacting consumers – critical to national security. Pushing food production "off shore" to emerging countries added “unacceptable” risks.
McCloskey said latest efforts focus on the dairy industry’s labor needs today and in the future, while seeking a unified dairy industry voice on immigration reform.
According to Kozak, AWC has identified several core principles, including:
• moving beyond the problems associated with both H-2A and AgJOBS to develop a program that helps farmers, ranchers and growers hire employees they need, while ensuring compliance with labor regulations that ensures address employees’ safety and compensation.
• for current workers without documentation, the framework recommends an adjustment in status that can be earned and is tied to their past work in agriculture, as well as, a future commitment to agriculture.
• any legislation also include a predictable, long-term program to meet the future workforce needs of agriculture as current employees leave to pursue new opportunities.
• the new worker program would eventually supersede the H-2A program, and would provide both producers and their employees with both flexibility and predictability.
“These are core principles that really can't be negotiated, but the details have to be worked out as we move forward,” Kozak said.
"We all know there is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work,” McCloskey said. “Dairy farmers and others in the food and agriculture sectors need to know we are working under a system sanctioned and verified by the government. The new AWC proposals are a fresh way to ensure our farmers can find reliable, skilled, hard-working employees. This framework is market-based and flexible and works for all of agriculture.”
“The proposal addresses workers who are here now, and those who will come to our country legally in the future,” he continued. “It also provides options for farmers who hire individuals on contract or at-will basis. Finally, it will ensure that our employees no longer remain in the shadows, which has been a shame, and we as employers can be confident our workers are legal and safe.”
Both Kozak and McCloskey downplayed differences between large and small producers on the immigration reform issue as something in the past. In fact, Kozak said dairies with only 2-3 employees might suffer more negative consequences from losing immigrant labor, because they'll have no place else to turn. McCloskey said the issue has changed dramatically over the years, with dairy size less of a “wedge” issue.
Kozak said AWC has already met with Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mark Rubio (R-Fla.), two members of the so-called Senate ”Gang of 8” working on immigration reform. Both are taking the lead on agricultural issues.
AWC would prefer to roll agricultural issues into an overall immigration reform proposal.
“I think our task is to fold the agricultural piece into the overall plan as it moves forward,” Kozak said. “Having said that, if overall immigration reform is not possible, we will do everything we can to have a separate piece.”