Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would allow dairy farmers to utilize a federal visa program to bring foreign workers to the U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., are co-sponsoring the measure.
The National Milk Producers Federation has endorsed the bill. NMPF's Chris Galen says it will help meet the labor needs of dairy farms across the country.
"Dairy farms, just like a lot of other agricultural operations, are having trouble finding workers to milk the cows and do other things around the farm," Galen said. "So what we are trying to do is expand an existing visa program for immigrant workers, called the H-2A Visa Program, so that dairy farmers can use it as well."
Galen notes dairy owners are currently treated differently than other farm employers, like those that hire workers to harvest fruits and vegetables, because milk production is not considered seasonal work.
"Dairy farming really isn't considered seasonal, but then goat herding and sheep herding really aren't seasonal enterprises either and they're able to use the H-2A program the same as the fruit and vegetable operators," Galen said. "So this basically would allow dairy operations to avail themselves of an existing channel to make certain their labor needs are met."
Galen admits it's not going to be easy to get any kind of immigration legislation through Congress. He notes this measure was introduced in the last Congress and didn't go anywhere. Plus, there's not currently a companion bill in the House.
"I don't want to get anyone's hopes up that just because a bill has been introduced that it means a few weeks or months later it is a done deal, it's not," Galen said. "I think the key here is that if we have dairy farmers who are concerned about this, they need to let their elected officials know."
Galen says this would really just be a baby step that would help dairy farmers in the area of immigration reform. NMPF supports comprehensive efforts to reform the nation's immigration policies, especially legislation that would address current unauthorized agricultural workers.