April 1, 2016

Trump, Cruz Disappoint on Dairy Immigration Reform Needs

 |  By: Dairy Talk

Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are either pandering to their hard right constituents on immigration reform or are clueless to the needs of dairy farmers.

Let’s hope it’s the former because their comments in no way reflect the labor needs of dairy farms that milk cows two to three times a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Speaking at CNN’s Town Hall meeting in Milwaukee last week ahead of the April 5 Wisconsin primary, both Trump and Cruz talked about securing the border to shut down illegal immigration. But they were vague about what comes next, what to do with the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants already here, how to fill those jobs if they are forced to leave or even how to fill current labor needs. (See Wyatt Bechtel’s full report here.)

John Pagel, who milks 5,500 cows near Kewanee northeast of Green Bay, asked Trump if an immigration policy could be developed to keep current employees here and bring new workers in from Mexico legally. Trump only answered half the question.

Trump says workers would have to come into the U.S. legally through a visa program, but gave no details on how such a program would work. “It’s going to work out beautifully,” Trump told Pagel. “You will not be affected. We don’t want to affect businesses. We want to grow businesses.”

Pagel says he is happy with the answer Trump gave on new workers. “At least he didn’t repeat what he has been saying about sending workers back. No politician is going to talk about that during the election because he will upset half of his voters.”

Cruz’ answer to a similar question from Jason Vorpahl, a dairy farmer who milk 2,800 cows near Random Lake just north of Milwaukee, was even more evasive. “Our immigration laws should benefit American workers. That should be the focus of immigration laws,” Cruz says. 

That’s a good sound bite, but again, it doesn’t address the issue. Most dairy farmers are already paying $10 to $12 to $15 per hour or more for labor. On an annual basis, that means they’re paying $24,000 to $30,000.  And yet those rates simply aren’t attractive to native born workers.

“Clearly [these candidates] don’t understand the urgency and the need and the role immigrant labor plays in our business,” says Gordon Speirs, a dairy farmer who milks 2,100 cows a half hour south of Green Bay near Brillion and chairman of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association.

“I don’t think there is a person who is working on a dairy farm who wants to be here illegally and I don’t think there is a dairy farmer who wants to hire illegally,” he says. “The reason that is happening is that the legal path is broken. If these legislators could fix the legal path, the illegal problem would fall away.” (Hear all of Speir’s comments here on his AgriTalk conversation.)

John Kasich, the last remaining Republican contender who also spoke at the Town Hall meeting in Milwaukee, offered the most reasoned approach to the problem. For those workers here illegally but who have committed no crimes, Kasich would offer a path to legal status for them to stay. They would have to pay a fine and any back taxes owed. “They can have a path to legalization, not a path to citizenship,” he says.

Sounds reasonable. Just don’t hold your breath that it will happen any time soon—or even get a fair hearing this election season.