Undocumented Labor Is the Dairyland's Bread and Butter

There is a crisis in America. Initially, both political parties disagree about how to fix it. The rhetoric is heated -- but finally a majority moves towards a common-sense solution. Unfortunately, a small minority refuses to budge. For them, compromise is a dirty word and they will have none of it. If necessary, this minority is willing to inflict serious damage on the economy in the name of "principle."

Most would assume that I just described the Tea Party and the recent battle over the debt ceiling limit. However, these same words equally apply to the labor crisis that exists in rural America due to our nation's broken immigration system. The reasons are complex, but the result is simple: rural America simply does not have the native-born workforce it needs to produce our food. For decades, farmers have turned to foreign workers to fill the gap, but that gap has grown due to factors such urbanization. Immigration law has failed to adapt, and the result is that much of this nation's agricultural workforce is undocumented. While the law allows for seasonal agricultural workers, most farmers cannot use these visas because the system is inefficient and cost-prohibitive.

The problem is even more acute in dairy producing areas such as my home state of Wisconsin. Dairy producers do not even have the option of applying for seasonal visas because cows have to be milked 365 days a year. With no visas available and a shortage of local labor, the result is an industry that has become deeply dependent on undocumented workers. While fans still cheer for the Packers in English, a significant portion of the state's milk and cheese is made in Spanish.

A solution to the problem has been proposed in Congress and enjoys bipartisan support. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or "AgJOBS," would allow undocumented agricultural workers to legalize if they pay fines and taxes and do not have a serious criminal history. The bill would also allow diary producers to participate in a streamlined version of the seasonal agricultural visa. But because a modern legislative victory requires 60 Senate votes, the bill has failed to pass even though it has long enjoyed majority support.

Instead of AgJOBS, there is presently a push in Congress to pass a law mandating E-Verify -- the federal electronic system to verify employment authorization. A small, but vocal minority is pushing mandatory E-Verify. They like to characterize AgJOBS and similar common sense immigration solutions with polarizing words such as "amnesty." They are willing to inflict serious damage to dairy and other industries in the name of principle. Sound familiar?

I recently traveled to Washington DC with dairy producers to advocate for immigration reform. Since one in every ten jobs in Wisconsin is tied to agriculture, dairy producers carry the economic as well as the physical health of my state in their hands. Given their profession, they also have an unparalleled ability to find common sense solutions to life's most difficult problems. During one Congressional meeting, two attorneys in my group were having a passionate discussion with a legislative aide about what the phrase "securing the border" really meant. After the discussion had gone on for some time, John, the dairyman in our group, had had enough and finally interjected: "You know, you guys need to just get together and finally decide what it means, because at the end of day, I still have to milk my cows."

Sometimes the simplest argument is the best.


Read more about the Wisconsin farmers that would be affected by the proposed E-Verify legislation.