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UPDATE: As Washington debates immigrant labor, Wisconsin dairy workers could benefit
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AGRICULTURE | MIGRANT WORKERS

UPDATE: As Washington debates immigrant labor, Wisconsin dairy workers could benefit

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WASHINGTON — Disruptions to the country’s food supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic have refocused attention on the key role that migrant workers play in U.S. agriculture, and legislation currently stalled in Congress could shore up the country’s farm workforce, including in Wisconsin.

The House of Representatives in March passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to provide a path to citizenship for many migrant farmworkers in the United States.

If passed, the legislation would establish a temporary Certified Agricultural Worker status for undocumented farmworkers who meet specific requirements, such as previous agricultural work experience and continuous presence in the United States, according to Andrew Walchuk, a staff attorney at Farmworker Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit. CAW status would last five and a half years and be indefinitely renewable.

Farmworkers with CAW status would then be eligible to apply for permanent legal residency, commonly known as green cards, after several years of CAW status and continued work in agriculture. The exact number of years CAW status recipients would have to wait before applying for green cards would depend on the number of years they have been involved in agricultural work in the United States, Walchuk explained.

The bill would also reform the H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. It would, for the first time, allow dairy employers to hire a limited number of H-2A workers every year. The legislation would also allow certain H-2A visa holders to petition — either via their employer or on their own behalf — for green cards to perform agricultural work. The number of foreign workers granted green cards through that program would be capped at 40,000 per year under the legislation.

The bill now awaits Senate approval, though senators have taken no major action on the legislation since receiving it from the House in March.

In Wisconsin, where the dairy industry is the largest agricultural sector in the state, migrants make up an estimated 40% of dairy workers, according to UMOS, a farmworker advocacy organization headquartered in Milwaukee. UMOS estimates that at least 90% of migrant dairy farmworkers in the state are undocumented.

Jill Lindsey Harrison, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied migrant workers in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, said the state’s dairy farmers have been hiring workers from Latin America for at least 20 years.

“On the one hand, white, U.S.-born workers were moving away from dairy work, uninterested in dairy work,” she explained. “And at the same time, there were a lot of immigrants, really, literally driving around, knocking on doors, asking for jobs on dairy farms. And so a lot of dairy farmers started hiring these immigrant workers who were interested in doing the work, not resistant to the relatively low wages, late hours, arduous nature of the work, didn’t complain, and were very eager to work very long hours.”

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigrant farm labor reform in July, senators stressed the critical role of migrant farmworkers in U.S. agriculture. Committee chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that the pandemic has forced lawmakers and others to “face the reality that our food supply chain depends to a great extent on the labor of immigrants.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Congress should focus on “reforming the H-2A program to ensure that farmers and agricultural employers have access to a stable and legal workforce.”

Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack told the committee that he backed the bill.

“I urge my congressional colleagues here today to meet this moment of bipartisanship efforts and move legislation forward this year that provides legal status and a path to citizenship for farmworkers, securing a reliable workforce for our agriculture industry,” he said.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who announced last week he plans to retire at the end of his term, is the only Wisconsin member of the House to co-sponsor the legislation.

Migrant workers

Roberto Tecpile, a native of Mexico, works with a 3-day-old calf in 2018 at the Rosenholm dairy farm in Cochrane. Congress continues to debate how to provide migrant farmworkers with more legal rights.

“Across Wisconsin, our farmers are in serious need of a reliable, high-quality workforce,” Kind said in a statement. “The bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act would help address this issue by making commonsense reforms to our agriculture guest worker program by making sure our dairy farmers are able to participate in the program as well as providing a path to permanent status for farmworkers. Especially as we work to build back from the COVID-19 crisis, stabilizing our workforce is a critical way to provide more certainty for our producers.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected and recast to reflect that the bill would apply to undocumented workers, who make up a significant proportion of Wisconsin's farm labor. 

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