By KIRK SEMPLE
Published: April 12, 2013
PERRY, N.Y. — When the letter arrived at Jeff True’s dairy farm here in western New York, it was, he recalled, “like getting sucker punched right in the gut.”
A federal audit had found that 12 of his 14 workers were immigrants who had provided Mr. True with false work documents, the letter said. The immigration authorities ordered him to dismiss those workers.
Mr. True, whose family has been dairy farming for two centuries, scrambled around the clock with his relatives to milk their 1,100 cows, hire and train new workers and keep the farm in business.
Most of his workers are immigrants from Latin America, and he now dreads that he could receive another letter at any moment.
“My biggest fear is my labor is not going to be here tomorrow,” he said. “Most of us live in fear of that every day.”
The struggles of the dairy industry in western and central New York, one of the nation’s leading dairy regions, have become an unlikely focus of the national debate over immigration policy. Delegations of local farmers, including Mr. True, have made trips to Washington to lobby for an expansion of the guest-worker program for agriculture, or the creation of a new one, to help ensure a reliable supply of labor.
Dairy farmers are generally not able to hire foreign workers through the existing guest-worker program for agriculture because it is only for seasonal workers, and milk production is year-round.
A bipartisan group of senators negotiating a comprehensive immigration reform bill have struggled with the details of an agricultural workers program. Late Friday, however, they announced they had reached an agreement over terms of the program. Officials involved in the talks said the dairy industry’s concerns were addressed in the deal.
Still, the farmers said they were preparing for a lengthy fight in Congress before the proposals become reality.
Besides their hiring problems, the farmers here say that they have also come under growing scrutiny from the immigration authorities.
While the states bordering Mexico typically draw most of the attention in the discussion over illegal immigration, the Obama administration has also stepped up enforcement along the Canadian border. At the same time, the administration has shifted its strategy of curbing illegal employment from an emphasis on workplace raids to subtler tactics like audits of employment records.
While the heightened enforcement has been felt throughout the agricultural communities of upstate New York, the dairy farmers said this pressure had been acute for them because their farms are concentrated close to the border. Under the law, agents from the federal Customs and Border Protection agency can patrol within 100 miles of any border.
The farmers said labor was a primary obstacle to the expansion of the dairy industry in New York, the fourth largest in the nation, with 610,000 milk cows. Lack of workers, they said, was threatening their ability to meet rising demand, caused in part by the booming yogurt industry, which has benefited from the popularity of Greek-style yogurt.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has championed the industry, noting that the number of yogurt plants in New York has more than doubled since 2000.
The farmers have warned that if they are not able to boost milk production, yogurt manufacturers will go out of state for milk.
“Politically, it’s going to look bad,” Mr. True said.
Mr. Cuomo sent a letter last week to members of the state’s Congressional delegation, urging them to support the creation of a new guest-worker program for the dairy industry.
The bipartisan Senate group is expected to present draft legislation next week.
Negotiations over agricultural workers were slowed by disagreements over wages and the number of visas. But Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, which has been involved in the talks, said the agricultural agreement reached Friday would set up a new guest-worker program that would include year-round dairy workers.
The visa terms “will accommodate the year-round employment situation for dairy,” Mr. Regelbrugge said.
Like agriculture in general, most dairy farms rely on newly arrived foreign-born workers because United States citizens simply do not want these jobs, farmers and industry officials said.
Julie C. Suarez, public policy director for the New York Farm Bureau, said the native-born population that once provided the bulk of the farm labor in upstate New York — high-school graduates between ages 18 and 30 — “have been leaving in droves.”
She added, “They don’t really exist where we live anymore.”
Dan Wolf, 65, who runs a dairy farm in Lyons, N.Y., founded by his wife’s grandfather in 1929, said that even during the recent recession, only one American citizen came looking for work — “and he wanted a job driving a truck.”
Some critics of the farmers’ reform proposals said there was an obvious solution to the apparent shortfall in legal laborers: better wages.
“They say that it wouldn’t work, but we haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve actually tried,” said Eric Ruark, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group seeking to reduce immigration.
Farmers contended that they already paid decent wages. A 2009 Cornell University survey found that “experienced” employees were paid an average of nearly $10 per hour — plus, for the majority of workers, some benefits.
Higher wages, farmers said, would eliminate thin profit margins and would still not attract the quality of worker they needed.
Dairy farmers in upstate New York said in interviews that they did not knowingly hire immigrants without work authorization. If laborers present documents that seem legitimate, they can be hired, the farmers said.
Most dairy workers upstate who are originally from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America did not enter the country through Canada, laborers and their advocates said. They immigrated along traditional routes — via Arizona, California or Texas — and then made their way across the country.
In recent years, scores of immigrants in upstate agricultural communities have been detained and deported after being questioned at road blocks or in random traffic stops, advocates and laborers said.
“When you go out in the street, you’re really careful, remain alert and make no mistakes,” said a dairy worker in western New York, who was in the country illegally and requested that most identifying details be withheld for fear that he and his employer could be traced.
The worker, who is Mexican, lives with his wife and young children in a rented trailer in a remote rural area, where he settled nine years ago. He recently changed jobs, and now works six days a week and as many as 15 hours a day, for $8.25 an hour, without overtime pay.
“You get accustomed to it,” he said during an interview at his home, “because there is no other work for us.”
Immigrants who had worked in other states said they never operated under the kind of enforcement pressure that exists in the agricultural regions near the Canadian border.
“In Indiana and Omaha, it was easy to travel — you’d see the police and say, ‘Hello!’ ” recalled a 67-year-old agricultural worker from Mexico now living in Sodus, N.Y. He would give only his first name, Blas.
He said the pressure was so intense that he was considering returning to his former job on a corn-packing assembly line in Nebraska, where there were fewer worries about the immigration authorities. Some farmers, too, said they had been thinking about a shift from dairy, or at least from the border regions, if Congress did not help them.
Matt Lamb said his family’s 6,000-cow dairy operation, based in Oakfield, N.Y., had been subjected to two crippling immigration audits in the past three years. He said he envied dairy farmers outside border regions.
“The Pennsylvania farmers don’t have a clue what I’m talking about,” he said. “They say, ‘Immigration who?’ ”