Dairy Workers Have Much At Stake In Immigration Bill

In upstate New York, dairy workers are anxiously watching the immigration debate on Capitol Hill. Nearly two-thirds of them are undocumented.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, for a closer look at immigration. More than two-thirds of the people who milk cows in this country are here illegally. So, the dairy industry has a lot riding on the immigration reform passed by the U.S. Senate - that is if the House also passes reforms. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein has been speaking with some undocumented dairy workers in northern New York state.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: It's 10 in the morning. Juan Carlos is just off a six-hour shift. So, he's frying up some beef tacos...

JUAN CARLOS: (Foreign language spoken)

SOMMERSTEIN: ...before another six-hour shift milking, feeding, and cleaning up after the cows. It's grueling, fast-paced and dirty work. And it's become clear over the years, farmers argue, that Americans just don't want to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOMMERSTEIN: The workers in this story don't want their last names used because they're here illegally. They all know the immigration debate is hot right now and something might happen. But Juan Carlos is skeptical.

CARLOS: (Foreign language spoken)

SOMMERSTEIN: You know how politicians are, he says. Here's what the Senate bill would offer undocumented dairy workers. They could stay here and get what's being called a blue card and work legally. They could apply for a green card after five years, citizenship after 10. But Juan Carlos says even starting that path would take too long.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) Say, you can get a visa in a year, and the visa's good for another eight months or a year. We're talking you have to stay here another two years. That's a long time.

SOMMERSTEIN: Juan Carlos says he misses his wife and his five-year-old girl. With the money he's made here, he's bought land in his village near Veracruz. He's going home, and hoping there's a temporary worker visa for him later. The Senate bill would offer that option too - a three-year guest worker visa, renewable for another three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

SOMMERSTEIN: Another dairy worker, Freddy, walks in from a neighboring farm. He grabs a taco and says it's the same story for many workers: they don't want citizenship.

FREDDY: (Through Translator) We have money here. We can buy what we want. But there's always an emptiness which is missing your family back home, your country, your land. And you miss your freedom.

SOMMERSTEIN: Farmers had been pushing this two-pronged approach for years - legal status for dairy workers already here and a temporary visa for new ones. Steve Ammerman of the New York Farm Bureau says dairy farmers need a plan for workers who are here now because they simply can't send them back to Mexico.

STEVE AMMERMAN: Bottom line, the cows have to be milked. You can't just say, well, I don't have the employees, we'll wait to milk them tomorrow.

SOMMERSTEIN: The Senate bill would also grant farm workers labor protections they currently lack, like sick days, says Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia. He's an investigator with the Worker Justice Center of New York, a farm worker advocacy group. With legal status, he says workers could leave the farm without fear of deportation. He says workers are optimistic about immigration reform and hungry for details.

GONZALO MARTINEZ DE VEDIA: I'll go into a farm to do a health and safety training. I'll ask the workers if they have any questions about safety, and they'll raise their hand and ask about immigration reform. So, it's really at the front of their minds these days.

SOMMERSTEIN: But with Congress still debating the details and a new law far from certain, undocumented farm workers are making life decisions on the fly. Take 20-year-old Ismael. He's worked on a northern New York dairy farm since he was just 15. It's been five years since he's seen his mother and father.

ISMAEL: (Through Translator) I'd like to end up with legal status, of course, to be able to return to Mexico to visit my family, with the ability to return here to work on this farm. I like working here.

SOMMERSTEIN: Ismael was going to finally return home to Mexico this month, but he says now he's going to stick it out and see if his patience is rewarded with legal status. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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