This story will appear in "The Dairy Effect," a special section in the May 5 edition of the Times-News. Pick up a copy of the May 5 paper for other stories about Magic Valley's dairy industry and its widespread effects.
TWIN FALLS • Idaho’s dairy owners are keeping a close eye on Washington, D.C.
As Congress considers immigration reform proposals, including a Senate package introduced in April, talk of paths to citizenship, border security and political fallout are dominating the national conversation. But one of the less controversial pieces of immigration is particularly crucial to Idaho’s economy: visas for migrant dairy workers.
In the ag industry, employers rely on temporary, seasonal H-2A visas for migrant workers. The United States supplies these visas for agriculture workers who work in the states from spring through the fall harvest. Those workers then return to their home countries.
Here’s the problem: The dairy industry is year-round, so seasonal visas don’t help dairies. That makes Idaho’s dairy industry more reliant on undocumented workers.
In March, Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association told the Idaho Statesman he estimates 75 to 80 percent of dairy workers in Idaho are undocumented. U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, put that number at 90 percent in an interview with the Bonner County Daily Bee.
In April, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a bill that included, among other provisions, an opportunity for undocumented dairy workers already in the United States to get a work visa, and a guest worker program to recruit more employees in the future.
Though the Senate’s immigration reform made headlines last month, Brent Olmstead of Milk Producers of Idaho pointed out the House needs to sign on, or come up with its own immigration package. He hopes both chambers can come up with a compromise by August.
“If it takes longer than that, we get into the election cycle,” Olmstead said, which will force immigration onto the back burner.
The changes that will benefit Idaho’s dairy industry aren’t among the controversial parts of the bill, but because they’re rolled into the same reform package, fights over border security and a path to citizenship might hold up a solution for dairy owners.
But, Olmstead said, he’s confident some form of the bill will pass.
“I think, finally, both parties are committed to doing something,” he said.