Immigration Hangs Like a Dark Cloud Over Dairy Farms

4/21/2012 10:00 AM

Chris Torres

Staff Writer

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — New York dairy farmer Mike McMahon says he has no choice but to hire migrant labor to milk the 700 cows on his Homer, Courtland County farm.

He has tried employing an all local workforce before. “But it got to a point where it was a revolving door,” McMahon said.

Of the 13 employees he has on staff now, six come from Mexico.

Like many dairy farms employing migrant labor, McMahon said it has provided him with a steady, hardworking workforce that enables him to keep his dairy going.

Still, he feels the system is broken and puts dairy farmers at a disadvantage since there is no program they can participate in that guarantees them a legal, year-round workforce.

But unlike many dairy farmers, McMahon isn’t afraid to speak his mind about what is a touchy issue.

“It’s important for farms to be vocal about this. I know it causes a dilemma, but I think ag needs to be continuously outspoken on this if we are ever going to get change,” McMahon said.

Some high profile raids by federal authorities within the last year and an uptick in workplace audits has some worried the industry is under a tight microscope as deportations of undocumented immigrants has reached record levels.

“We are aware there is increased activity in the enforcement area. That’s the activity we’re aware of,” said Alan Novak, president and founder of Novak Strategic Advisors, which does lobbying work for the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania (PDMP).

Novak said many PDMP members, of which there are 140 producers, have notified him of more audits, coined “silent raids” by some, being done of paperwork on farms by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Late last year, an audit of paperwork at Kreider Dairy Farms in Manheim, Pa. showed at least 100 employees, one-third of the farm’s workforce according to a Jan. 21 article in the Lancaster Sunday News, had invalid documents to work in the U.S.

The farm had to fire most of the 100 employees as a result.

In December, a Smithville, N.Y. dairy farmer, John Barney, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly employing illegal aliens and agreed to pay a fine of $3,000 to the widow of a worker who died as a result of a farm accident in March 2011.

Other high profile raids in the Empire State have occurred, including some raids of farms surrounding McMahon.

Unlike other sectors of agriculture, dairy farmers don’t have a temporary guest worker program to fill their labor needs. Farmers like McMahon and the Graybeal family, owners of Graywood Farms in Peach Bottom, Lancaster County, say the local workforce is too undependable to do the jobs, even though they feel the jobs pay well compared to other industries.

A 2009 report commissioned by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), AgriLife Research from Texas A&M and the Center for North American Studies found that in a survey of 5,005 dairy farms in 47 states, at least 50 percent of dairy farms — 297-head average — used migrant labor.

The same study found that taking away the migrant workforce would reduce the nation’s dairy herd by 1.34 million head and reduce milk production by 29.4 billion pounds. At the same time, the report states more than 4,500 farms would go out of business and dairy retail prices would jump by at least 61 percent.

“It’s been a constant threat to dairy farmers across the U.S. for a number of years,” says Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation.

He said any hopes of a comprehensive immigration bill this year have been squashed due to the election.

Meanwhile, several states have passed strict immigration bills and in Congress, there is a bill being debated that would require all employers use the nationwide E-Verify system, which is currently voluntary.

Deportations right now are at record levels. Since 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, deportations of undocumented aliens under the Obama Administration have risen 30 percent over the annual average of deportations during the second term of President George W. Bush. About 81 percent of these undocumented aliens are Hispanic and they accounted for 97 percent of deportations in 2010.

But the trend also shows an increased focus on deporting undocumented aliens with known criminal backgrounds.

Numbers from ICE, which were cited in the Pew report, shows that the deportation of criminal undocumented aliens rose from 136,000 in 2009 to 217,000 in 2011, while at the same time, deportation of non-criminals dropped from 253,000 to 180,000 during the same time period.

Ricky Palladino, an attorney with Bagia & Associates, a law firm specializing in immigration law in Philadelphia, said farmers, along with other employers, are legally required to keep an I-9 employment form for every person they employ on the farm as proof that they have employees legally allowed to work in the country.

Those forms get scrutinized when ICE agents show up to do paperwork audits.

As preferred legal counsel to PDMP, Palladino said he has done up to five I-9 audits of his own on farms throughout the last year and has found numerous errors including some farms using old forms, signatures in the wrong place and keeping documents longer than required.

These things might seem minor, but Palladino said it could raise a red flag if an actual ICE audit were to occur.

“What you want to make sure is you’re doing the legal minimum,” Palladino said, meaning keeping copies of the documents provided by employees along with the I-9 form.

Problems arise, he said, when farmers don’t keep I-9 forms or when employees use forged documents. “But again, the employer isn’t supposed to be the expert on the documents and you can’t discriminate on the basis of nationality,” he said.

McMahon said a recent inspection of documents on his farm turned out clean. He said his wife keeps tight records of all the employees including documents they bring to prove they are legal to work.

He’s taken additional precautions with his workers, especially when they go somewhere off the farm. A lot of times he’ll accompany his workers when they run even basic errands, such as going to the store. Many farms he knows of that have been raided got tipped off as a result of an employee getting into an accident and the authorities finding out they were undocumented immigrants.

McMahon said he does the best he can to verify his employees are legal, but he insists he’s doing what he is supposed to be doing under the law.

“I suppose if a person really wanted to, they could take a person’s documents to the law enforcement and say, here you go, look these up for me.’ I’m just not willing to do it. I’m not required to do that,” he said. “They have to be on the books and as legal as I can perceive them through looking at their documents. It’s a broken system. Are we to play the police part when our own representatives can’t get together and fix this thing?”

Lisa Graybeal, partner at Graywood Farms, laughs at the idea that farmers use migrants as cheap labor in order to avoid hiring locals to milk the 700 or so cows on the farm.

“It’s not cheap labor. If you think immigrant labor comes in not knowing what the prevailing wage is here, think again,” she said. “We pay way over minimum wage,” and provide other benefits, such as housing within one mile from the farm.

Lisa’s father, Steve Graybeal, said the farm’s expansion 10 years ago, which essentially doubled the number of milking cows and enabled the business to support not only Steve but also Lisa as well as a son, Byron and his family, wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the available migrant labor in the area.

The farm employs 16 people.

He gets frustrated talking about the issue. One dairy farmer he knows of in Colorado has developed an emergency plan with phone numbers of prospective workers they can contact in case an ICE raid on the farm would occur.

He said the family takes as many precautions as legally necessary to ensure they have a local workforce, including keeping good records. An inspection five years ago, Lisa said, turned out clean with the exception of one employee, who had already quit anyway.

Steve thinks none of the current controversy surrounding immigration reform would exist if the government developed some sort of program for farmers to get a reliable, legal workforce.

“It needs to be addressed. It’s easy to fix,” he said angrily. “It’s one of the most easy subjects to fix ... All they have to do is give these people work permits.

“It’s just outrageous. It makes me mad because it is easy to fix.”

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