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Immigration bill pins big hopes on dairy cows

Field workers pick strawberries in Oxnard, California, April 16, 2013. In California, laborers from Mexico and Central America help make it
Field workers pick strawberries in Oxnard, California, April 16, 2013. In California, laborers from Mexico and Central America help make it

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From the technology and tourism industries to the fruit growers of California, there is something for almost everyone in the sprawling immigration legislation that the U.S. Senate will start debating this month.

But for supporters of this controversial bill who are searching for a solid bloc of votes in the Senate, there might be no better way than through a provision embedded in the law that gives dairy farmers better access to foreign labor.

The carefully constructed Senate strategy banks on trying to win over Republican senators representing states scattered throughout the country and where the $35 billion U.S. dairy farm industry contributes heavily to local economies.

Backers hope that they will lure these conservative senators - maybe more than a dozen of them - to vote for a bill that they otherwise might not support because of what critics consider its "amnesty" for the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

For example, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Pennsylvania are among the top five dairy-producing states and together there are four Republican senators representing them.

"It is a way of giving something to those who may see parts of the bill as undesirable and let them say, 'At least I'm going to be helping the agriculture industry in my state,'" said former Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, who was a player in a failed, 2007 attempt at passing an immigration bill.

"Without it, it goes nowhere," added Martinez, who now is an executive with JPMorgan Chase & Co.

It may seem absurd that the fate of the first major immigration reform effort in 27 years could hinge partially on the country's 9.2 million lactating cows.

But in a deeply divided U.S. Congress where accomplishing anything is difficult, this rare, bipartisan bill is a case study in trade-offs, including the dairy provision.

If the gamble pays off in the Senate, supporters hope that the dairy provision might also entice some rural Republicans in the more conservative House of Representatives, where Republicans control the chamber and the battle over immigration will be even tougher.

'ELBOW DEEP'

The dairy industry has been lobbying for years for easier access to foreign workers, armed with studies designed to demonstrate the economic harm caused by the current system, which allows visas for foreigners to do seasonal work but not for the year-round needs of dairies.

The bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would create three-year visas, renewable for another three years.

For a flavor of how important the raging debate over immigration reform is to rural America, one needs to drive only a few hours outside of Washington.

Brubaker Farms in south-central Pennsylvania has about 930 cows, mostly Holsteins: those iconic black and white beasts that many consider to be the world's best milk producers.

The Brubaker family has operated the dairy farm on 1,800 acres over the past century, a period that saw the country's demographics change with more and more young people gravitating to cities.

For those staying in rural areas, fewer Americans now want to work on dairy farms "with their arms past the elbow in a heifer when she's giving birth at 3 a.m.," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a farm industry group.

Tony Brubaker said enactment of immigration legislation would ensure a steady workforce for his operation. "Before I started hiring immigrant workers, it was nearly impossible to keep all positions full," he said.

By 2009, 62 percent of the nation's milk supply came from farms using immigrant labor, almost exclusively from Mexico, according to an industry survey.

Even so, for Brubaker and other dairy farmers, hiring immigrant labor can be complicated. That is because agricultural immigrant visas are mainly aimed at providing short-term work stints of six to 10 months to accommodate farmers needing field hands to help with seasonal crops.

But in dairy operations, where laborers are needed around the clock 365 days a year, the current visa system is clunky at best, Brubaker said. "It takes six months before they're decent at the job. And it takes two years before they're really good at the job," he said of new employees.

In response, the Senate bill would let dairy operators hire foreign workers for three years at a time to milk their cows, tend to sick livestock and do other farm chores.

Across the country in southeastern Idaho, Tony Vander Hulst of Westpoint Farms said that while he is fully staffed with 55 mostly Hispanic workers tending to 5,000 cows, "At times it (the workforce) gets scarce."

For example, he said, when law enforcement officials conducted a sweep of a local market a few years ago, picking up employees of other farms, "That created a scare among the Hispanic community," making it harder to find workers.

For all of U.S. agriculture, at least half of the 1.1 million farm workers are undocumented, according to government estimates.

Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho, asked by Reuters whether the dairy provision could help capture his vote, said he would not decide based on any single issue.

But, expressing the sentiment of several Republican senators interviewed by Reuters, Risch added, "Certainly, that's an important provision. We also have a robust high-tech industry in Idaho and it's just as important at the upper end as it is at the lower end" of the labor market to update immigration law.

The bill is not being powered solely by prospects of easier access to foreign labor to boost U.S. agricultural and high-tech industries.

Democrats would achieve their long-sought goal of bringing the 11 million undocumented residents "out of the shadows" where they no longer would have to elude law enforcement. Such people could then put more of their energies into finding legal employment, integrating their families into American society and ultimately gaining U.S. citizenship, advocates argue.

Meanwhile, Republicans see a chance to begin appealing to growing numbers of Hispanic voters, while also toughening border security with around $6 billion in new investments.

CATTLE AND SHEEP TOO

Ranchers who graze cattle and sheep on western range lands also want the agriculture visa system retooled because they face many of the same labor problems as dairy farmers.

"The mountain West is in our judgment pretty pivotal" to the Senate successfully passing an immigration bill this year, Regelbrugge said.

And so, he hopes, the bill could also put in play senators from Utah and Wyoming, which together have four Republican senators. And then there is Montana, with two Democratic senators maintaining moderate profiles in their Republican-leaning states.

In the free-wheeling Senate debate that begins in about a week, nobody is sure which provisions will stand and which might come under attack and be removed.

"Every aspect of the bill is in jeopardy of potentially being targeted" for change, Regelbrugge fretted. He included the farm worker provision, which some may argue singles out agriculture for more favorable treatment than other industries.

Any major changes to the bill could fracture the coalition of urban Democrats and "dairy" Republicans that supporters see as essential to this legislative fight.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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