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Incredibly Necessary and Increasingly Likely

February 1, 2013

When the dust settles after each presidential election, political analysts often trip over themselves trying to figure out the meaning of the choices voters made, in both local and national campaigns. It’s debatable as to whether there were many clear take-aways from the recent 2012 election, but if anything obvious emerged, it was a need to address the politics and policy of the nation’s immigration laws.

After the election outcome in several states turned on the proportion of Latino voters giving a margin of victory to President Obama, Republican political strategists have recognized that the party’s implacable opposition to a reasonable reform of immigration policies – one that moves beyond just “enforcement only” – is the politically prudent path. Meanwhile, Democrats also recognize the importance of this issue to the growing Hispanic population in America. Not only is fixing this contentious issue good politics, it also will help shore up the economics of importance business sectors, ranging from construction and hospitality, to agriculture – especially dairy farming.

As a result of this emerging consensus on the need to act, leaders of both parties, including President Obama himself, have pledged in the past month to focus on a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. This shift in tone and outlook is welcome news for America’s dairy farmers, who, along with many other agricultural employers, have been pushing for nearly a decade for labor policy reforms that will favorably affect their current and future workforce.

The National Milk Producers Federation is one of these farm groups, who have recently formed a new alliance, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), to marshal the resources of 11 national and regional organizations dedicated to reforming immigration policy. The AWC membership has forged a consensus proposal to make badly-need changes in laws affecting the farm sector, as part of any large immigration reform package that moves this year through Congress.

The AWC proposal includes both an opportunity for adjustment in legal status to be earned by current agricultural employees who presently lack such status, and a program to ensure an adequate farm workforce in the future. Also, unlike current programs such as the H-2A visa, the AWC proposal is meant to ensure that all types of food producers—including both those with seasonal labor needs and ones with year-round labor needs (i.e., dairy farmers) —have access to the workforce they need to remain productive and competitive.

It’s one of the ironies of the national economy in the past five years that, even while the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high, business owners in some areas have trouble recruiting a suitable labor force. The fact is that farmers and ranchers have long experienced difficulty in obtaining workers, as the jobs they offer are physically demanding and conducted year-round in all types of weather. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions, which are typical of dairy farms, are not attractive.

A number of studies document this fact, including one conducted in 2009 by NMPF and Texas A&M University, which found that U.S. dairies employed 138,000 full-time equivalent workers, of which 57,000, or 41%, were foreigners. The NMPF survey found that if federal labor policies were to result in the loss of just half of those 57,000 workers, an additional 66,000 workers would also be lost, due to the closure of some dairy farms, and the resulting multiplier effect of fewer jobs in grain and fertilizer production and sales, veterinary services, milk hauling, and related agricultural service jobs. This would produce an economic loss of $11 billion.

Recognizing the need to achieve a once-in-a-generation public policy reform, and actually getting it done, are two very different things. The 2012 farm bill is a good example of how the best intentions can be thwarted at the last minute by the forces of inertia. But in addition to pushing again on the farm bill in 2013, NMPF views the immigration policy reform opportunity as incredibly necessary, and increasingly likely.