In Idaho's Dairy Country, Undocumented Workers Fear Trump's Policies

Apr 18, 2017

Idaho may be synonymous with potatoes, but the state is also one of the largest dairy producers in the country. Like much of the agriculture sector, a majority of the labor at dairies comes from foreign-born workers.

In southern Idaho, cows’ hooves clack gently as they stand in the milking parlor of a small dairy. Taking the noise of the automated milkers in stride, the cows are calm as they’re milked in 10 minute sessions. Monitoring the animals, overseeing the machinery and wrangling the cows in and out of the milking parlor is Pedro.

He came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. As he watches the livestock, he says in Spanish through a translator that his day usually starts at 3 a.m.

He’s quite a sight. “My sweatshirt is torn; I’m all dirty from cow poop,” he says, spreading his arms and showing a streaky mess on his faded white hoodie. “My pants are wet, but this is all part of my job.”

Pedro tends to 10 cows at a time as they cycle through the milking parlor.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

Following a stint in Phoenix, Arizona, Pedro found his way to Idaho and got a job in the dairy industry. It’s hard work, but Pedro says he likes it. This isn’t his first job working with animals; before the dairy he worked on a cattle ranch.

While a job on a dairy may suit Pedro, he thinks the labor side of the agriculture sector is work most Americans wouldn’t even consider.

“I don’t believe the people who were born here want to work in the fields,” he says. He’s seen a few Americans try the work, but based on his observations they usually only last an hour or half a shift before calling it quits.

The owner of the dairy where Pedro works doesn’t sugarcoat the demanding nature of the jobs both she and her employees perform.

“Milking happens 365 days a year, seven days a week, whether it’s windy or rainy or cold,” she says.

Like many dairy operations across the state, even this smaller one relies on labor from undocumented immigrants to get the daily tasks of feeding, milking and breeding the cows completed. As she’s operating in violation of the law, she’ll be referred by a pseudonym: Sherri.

Sherri says the trend of outsourcing undesirable jobs is nothing new.

“In America we’ve always had jobs that Americans aren’t willing to do. We’ve always needed an immigrant workforce to do those kinds of jobs.”

Undocumented workers at the dairy in southern Idaho make a majority of the staff. The dairy's owner, Sherri, says her undocumented employees are good at their jobs and are the only ones who would fill the demanding positions.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

Located in a rural part of southern Idaho, President Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric resonated throughout the region where Sherri’s dairy is located. Many counties in the vicinity voted for the GOP by margins north of 70 percent. With Trump’s determination to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, many undocumented dairy workers living in the shadows are afraid.

Pedro married an American in 2010 and only received his documentation a couple years ago. His brother Juan, who works with him on the dairy, is still without papers.

Standing by a pen filled with cows chewing cud and loudly mooing, Juan states the undocumented have always lived in fear.

“But now,” he says through an interpreter, “they’re trying to categorize us as drug dealers, rapists – in other words, criminals. We’re here working pretty much every day making an honest living.”

As bombast casts suspicion on all immigrants, Juan says authorities know where the actual criminal elements are.

At 31, Juan has spent over a third of his life in the U.S. He crossed into California over a decade ago and began working in landscaping there. Eventually, he headed north to Idaho to join his brother Pedro.

Like any regular job, Juan had to fill out an application to work on the dairy – an application that required he make up a few of the numbers his employer asked for.

Pedro, Juan's older brother, shows off his soiled clothing. He says wet pants, cow poop and early mornings starting at 3 a.m. are all just parts of his work.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

“If they wanted to check [workers’] status, it would make a difference, but since we’re talking about agriculture work, work that really nobody wants to do, [employers] are willing to look the other way and not risk not having any employees,” Juan says.

Employment forms ask for things like residency status or social security numbers, and workers fill those sections in. Whether or not it’s true isn’t a concern of dairy owners. 

Sitting at her kitchen table eating sandwiches and drinking coffee with a splash of fresh milk in it, Juan’s boss Sherri says she takes the information provided to her by the employees of her dairy at face value.

“Because they are the people that are willing to do the job and they do the job well – and there is no legal system to hire somebody year round – it is pretty well accepted,” she says. “It’s part of the system that nobody wants to talk about but we all participate in.”

There is one visa program specifically designed for foreign-born agriculture workers, but the H2-A visa only lets those guest workers stay in the country two to 10 months. That’s no good for the dairy industry, which is a year-round operation.

The head of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, Bob Naerebout, says the dairy sector makes up a third of the agriculture industry in Idaho. It contributes $3.5 billion to the state’s GDP. According to Naerebout, Idaho is the fourth- biggest dairy producer.

“The rural economy of Idaho, so the economy of Magic Valley and basically the rural economy across the state, is dependent on foreign-born labor,” he says. “For those in agriculture that aren’t seasonal and temporary, we don’t have a visa program.”

With the head of one of the largest industry groups in Idaho admitting dairy owners have few choices when it comes to employment, options are limited for owners of small dairies like Sherri or larger operations.

Sherri isn’t looking for amnesty for her employees. Of a possible visa system, she says: “it doesn’t have to lead to a path to citizenship. I think people should have that opportunity, but, at this point, if there was a legal year-round visa system, we would participate in it for sure.”

Raising calves, feeding the cattle and milking are all daily tasks that need to be taken care of on a dairy farm. Unlike most agricultural work which is seasonal, dairy operations function 365 days a year regardless of weather or other conditions.
Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio

Her undocumented employees say they also wish there was a legal system in place for them to stay and fill the jobs native-born citizens won’t do.

As he continues to live and work in the shadows without papers, Juan says he doesn’t really have a plan should he get caught in an immigration raid.

“The only thing is that my wife is a citizen, and she would be able to stay here with the children,” he says. “But they’re going to suffer as well. The only reality that I have is that I’m here undocumented.”

Juan’s situation isn’t uncommon, and the specter of deportation facing him is shared by millions of undocumented workers nationwide. With directives from the Trump Administration broadening the spectrum of who's made a priority case for removal from the country, the safest place for those doing the dirtiest and hardest jobs remains out of sight.

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