Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farmers support immigration reform

That was the dominant theme of a field trip I took at the Rural Sociological Society meeting in Boise a few days ago. In particular, dairy farmers in the state's Magic Valley (did you know Idaho is the third biggest milk producer in the country now?) are running nearly entirely off Latina/o labor, and they live in fear of an ICE raid. Why? They say they won't be able to run their operations if "their Mexicans" are taken away.

On one level, what the dairy farmers say is offensive. That is, just the very phrase "my Mexicans," makes me shudder. The farmers say that white labor is unreliable, that no one else wants to do these unpleasant, back-breaking jobs except the "Mexicans." They may be right. They laud the "Mexicans'" extraordinary work ethic, relying on this immigrant labor, much of it apparently undocumented, to do the grinding work of their operation, often in 10-hour and 12-hour shifts. The massive dairy farm we visited (milking about 3,000 cows, keeping up to another 10,000 calves at times) employs about 200 workers, paid between $2000 and $3000 a month, depending on job and seniority. That may be a living wage, but just barely. Meanwhile, it seems to me that use of this immigrant labor Latina/o-izes the underclass--which in my mind is a very good argument for immigration reform.

The dairy farmers told us that all of their workers present the requisite Social Security Number and photo identification, but they don't know if the documents are valid.

On the other hand, I understand why the dairy farmers don't feel they can absorb greater labor costs. They work very hard and are struggling to make ends meet and turn a profit as commodity markets control so many aspects of the industry's economics, and input costs (feeding the cattle!) sky rocket.

What is happening in Idaho's dairy industry is reflected in this story in today's New York Times. Jesse McKinley and Julia Preston report from Patterson, California, under the headline, "Farmers Oppose G.O.P. Bill on Immigration." Here are the first few paragraphs:
Farmers across the country are rallying to fight a Republican-sponsored bill that would force them and all other employers to verify the legal immigration status of their workers, a move some say could imperil not only future harvests but also the agricultural community’s traditional support for conservative candidates.

The bill was proposed by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It would require farmers — who have long relied on a labor force of immigrants, a majority here without legal documents — to check all new hires through E-Verify, a federal database run by the Department of Homeland Security devised to ferret out illegal immigrants.
McKinley and Preston's story echoes what is happening in Idaho. Farm laborers present documents to their employers, but it is an "open secret that many farmworkers' documents are false."

As one dairy farmer to whom we spoke in the Magic Valley said, "this [the immigration law] has got to be fixed, unless you want to start getting your milk from China."

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