South Dakota Dairy Farmers Join Ag Call for Immigration Reform

farm visaThe 34 employees of Turner Country Dairy, a 1,600-cow dairy farm in South Dakota, milk the cows three times a day, six days a week. It’s heavy, repetitive, arduous work of the kind on which many job seekers pass. Not surprisingly, a majority of Turner Country Dairy workers are immigrants.

Farmer reliance on immigrant labor is a familiar story. The backbone of agricultural labor in Arizona and California is made up of undocumented workers. Likewise, immigrants power the labor on farms in the state of New York. With each, farmers working with immigrants say an overwhelming need to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies and visa systems exists.

However, so far efforts to this end coming out of Washington D.C. are misguided. While employers like Turner County Dairy complies with employment law by collecting required information— an employee’s driver’s license, a Social Security card and an I-9 tax form—verification of these documents isn’t currently required.

Last month, a Congressional committee began moving forward an employer eVerify requirement. Essentially, this means the onus of checking an employee’s work authorization status falls on employers.

EVerify is a government resource to check employee information against Social Security and Homeland Security records.

Undocumented agricultural workers who aren’t authorized to work in the U.S. are estimated to range from 50 percent to 70 percent. Organizations such as the American Farm Bureau, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Western Growers Association have all rallied around the idea of providing U.S. agriculture with access to a legal, stable workforce.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau is quoted as saying the matter is at a breaking point. “We’re at the point where we’re either importing our labor or we’re importing our food.”

Even when immigrants are working legally in the United States, the current system is still cumbersome. Steve Bossman, Turner Country Dairy manger, says visa expirations every five years means workers must make the expensive and time-consuming trip back to their home country. The ritual, which can take up to five months, is required every five years for paperwork renewal.

Besides dairy, other agricultural operations where immigrant labor is common are livestock feedlots, sheep operations and cow-calf producers. Hand-harvested items like apples, blueberries and asparagus are also highly reliant on immigrant labor.