Worker in milking parlor.
October 7, 2016

Immigration Reform Will Occur Only If Legislators Held Accountable

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

With the economy improving, labor markets tightening and fewer workers coming north from Mexico, dairy farmers in most areas of the country are legitimately asking: ‘Who is going to milk our cows?’

And while immigration reform seems to be at a standstill during this election season, the current stalemate might actually be an opportunity to hold legislators’ feet to the fire. That seemed to be the consensus view of a panel of policy experts that discussed immigration reform at World Dairy Expo here this week. The panel was sponsored by the American Dairy Coalition (ADC).

“It is time for us to hold legislators accountable,” says Laurie Fischer, ADC president. “Dairy producers are not going to be able to grow, they are not going to expand, if they don’t know who will milk their cows.”

“You have to hold your elected representatives’ feet to the fire, and you have to let them know this is important,” adds Jon Baselice, director of Immigration Policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We won’t get it done without your help.”

The key is to find out where your Congressman is campaigning this fall, go to the events and engage him or her on immigration issues. “Some of them are slippery fish; they don’t like to be in the public eye [on immigration policy],” says Baselice.

But dairy farmers must make legislators understand how critical the issue is not only to their farms but to their communities. “Get your Representative or Senator on to your farms, and show them the business decisions you will have to make if you don’t have labor: You can’t expand and you can’t let your son or daughter come back to the farm,” says Kristi Boswell, director of Congressional Relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

And talk to your neighbors about the importance of immigration reform, she says. “They are still getting more negative comments on immigration than positive coming into Congressional offices,” she says.

Another alternative

If federal immigration reform is not possible, a state visa program that would control legal immigration might be an option, says Alexander Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst with the Cato Institute.

Canada and Australia already offer regional approaches to their immigration visa policies, so such programs aren’t as far-fetched as the might appear at first glance, he says.

Such state-based programs might be a viable alternative that could legalize current undocumented workers and provide a secure supply of legal workers for the future, Nowrasteh says. “Congress has sole authority over immigration, but it can share authority with states. It would then be up to states whether to participate, and which individuals within a state would get visas.”

Like now, there likely would be annual quotas set, proportional to a state’s population. For example, Wisconsin might get 4,700 visas in the program’s first year; California, 17,000. Under the Cato Institute proposal, visa numbers would increase annually, doubling over eight years. The Cato Institute proposal would also allow states to set up compacts to share workers across state borders.

For more on the American Dairy Coalition’s position on immigration reform, click here.

For more on workforce trends, click here.