Labor-Starved Ag Businesses Want To Keep Immigrant Workers In US Legally

Nov 3, 2017

On a feedlot in far southwest Kansas, two cowboys on horseback move cattle on the high dusty plains, spread out like dozens of football fields stitched together with miles of fences. Their “Buenos dias! Buenos dias!” greetings mix with moos on a hot summer morning.

They’re two of the 400 employees who work on the feedlot, which is one of the largest in the U.S. in a state that ranks third in meat production. 

The majority of workers, including the cowboys, are immigrants, as are laborers in the area’s dairies, two giant meat-processing operations and burgeoning ethanol plants.

“There are literally not people to fill these open positions,” the feedlot owner said of the area, where the unemployment rate hovers around 2 percent. “We need all the people we can get, regardless of where they come from.”

That’s why this owner, who asked not to be identified for fear of attracting the attention of immigration officials, is supporting a quiet but growing effort for a federal reform that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. to work in the agriculture industry.

Federal bill in the works

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would create a guest-worker program and, among other things, would increase the number of workers allowed into the country, ease red tape and include not just seasonal workers, but those who work year-round in feedlots and dairies. The bill was narrowly approved by a U.S. House committee in October and now moves to the full House.

Agriculture relies on immigrant labor, yet half of the farm workers in this country are undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (It’s unknown how many undocumented workers are in the livestock sector, because that data is not collected.)

Large farm groups say the labor shortage is at crisis levels — and they want relief. Even members of the Trump administration support legal status for undocumented farm workers at a time when anti-immigrant sentiments are running high.

Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, told Harvest Public Media this spring that he is working on a plan to allow undocumented workers to stay in the U.S., and that Trump supports it.

“He understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms, many of them that are doing a great job contributing to the economy of the United States,” Perdue says.

The opposition

Politics make strange bedfellows, but many liberals and conservatives oppose Perdue’s proposal and Goodlatte’s bill.

Colorado immigration attorney Dan Kowalski jokingly calls Perdue’s plan “agnesty,” or agricultural amnesty. He compares it with what a lot of employers already use: H-2A visas that allow workers into the country seasonally, but tie them to a single employer.

“What I’m afraid of is that some employers or industries are longing for a return to a more plantation-type situation where you have low-paid, hard-working employees who are really trapped,” Kowalski says.  

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the nation’s leading anti-immigrant voices and running for the Republican nomination for governor, made a name for himself writing get-tough immigration laws for states like Arizona and now heads Trump’s voting commission. He opposes any amnesty-like changes to immigration law, he recently explains, pointing to a 1986 amnesty offered under President Ronald Reagan that attracted more than a million immigrants, many using phony documents.

“If we had another amnesty, it would have the same two consequences,” Kobach says. “You’d see massive fraud and you’d see people surging into the United States illegally.”

A cowboy on horseback moves cattle at a large feedlot in southwest Kansas. He is one of 400 workers at the business, which depends on immigrant labor.
Credit Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

During last month’s testimony on Goodlatte’s bill in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said the bill would create a “sharecropping system.”

“This is setting up a permanent second class of persons in the United States,” he said.

The feedlot owner in southwest Kansas, who says all of her employees are documented, is concerned that reports of arrests and mass deportations will lead to losing her workforce. If someone in an employee’s family doesn’t have papers, she says. the entire family may to return to their home country out of fear.

“They want the American Dream that everyone else has,” she says. “They want to live here, they want to work here and provide for their families.” 

Follow Peggy on Twitter: @peggyllowe