Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

3 open minutes with NMPF Sr. Vice President Jaime Castaneda

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 05 August 2011

Editor's note: This article is the extended version, which contains more content from the interview, of the article that was published in the August 11th issue of Progressive Dairyman.




The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) recently announced its support for the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011” or S. 1258, a Democratic-sponsored legislation for immigration reform. The proposed legislation includes a dairy H-2A visa eligibility provision (S. 852) that was introduced earlier this spring by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which NMPF also supported.

Editor Walt Cooley spoke with NMPF’s Jaime Castaneda about why the group has thrown its support behind these bills.

Q. How would you describe dairy’s role in immigration reform?
Immigration is a complicated issue. Unlike other policy issues, the dairy industry is relatively new on the farm labor scene. We have hired foreign labor for many years, but we have never had to deal with the different visa programs that other ag industries have used.

Q. What are some of the ag industries that are ahead of the curve on immigration policy?
Well, certainly all the fruit and vegetable industries are very much aware of what is available to them. They have been working with visa and guest worker programs for many years. In particular, the sheep industry is one sector has been using a visa program since the early 1950s.

Q. Who are the allies the dairy industry can align with to promote immigration reform?
In agriculture, I think those industries that are operating with foreign labor are all united for immigration reform. “How do we get there?” That’s the ultimate question. It is in the approach that different organizations have different views.


Q. Which industries think like the dairy industry on immigration reform?
I think that every industry is pretty much on its own. The Farm Bureau is probably closest to our position on how we should proceed.

Q. Describe NMPF’s immigration reform position.
What we have been predicating from National Milk is that AgJOBS, as it is written today, is not a viable avenue. It is not going to pass this Congress. There have been many significant efforts, especially in 2007, to try to pass AgJOBS with no success. AgJOBS started as a way to improve the rules and accessibility to farm labor for those under H-2A.

Dairy wasn’t part of AgJOBS because it has never been part of H-2A, until Sen. Leahy helped include dairy to address the lack of tools for dairy farmers. We have been advocating that AgJOBS needed to change and that we needed to be creative. We have to ask ourselves: How do we protect folks who are here, and how do we secure a future flow of workers within a program that works and can pass Congress?

One important element that people forget is that we don’t have as much power in this issue in agriculture as we do when we deal with other issues like the Farm Bill. This is because immigration is not a priority issue for many of the large national agriculture organizations such as the corn, cotton, soybean, wheat or rice growers.

We don’t have them actively working for immigration reform. So when we talk about immigration support from agriculture, it is not the same as in other issues.

Q. So why support the most recently announced immigration reform proposal?
First, we are not embedded in or completely sold on the current legislation. We support anyone who wants to look at dairy specifically and try to do something different. This proposal includes reforms to the H-2A visa program that allow dairy producers to use it.


Do we think this proposal will actually solve all of the immigration problems? Absolutely not. What we’re trying to do is to make people aware that there are other alternatives that are more viable forms of reform than what some of the other folks are currently pursuing.

Q. Explain the proposed H-2A visa program reforms. How would they help ensure a more stable dairy work force?
It takes the H-2A program that exists today, but makes it very specific for dairy. For instance, it allows for a dairy producer to bring someone into the country for up to six years. It also allows that individual, after a certain amount of years, to apply for permanent residency.

The program would be part of a limited amount of permanent visas, so it’s not like if you apply, you’re going to get permanent residency overnight. With this legislation, dairy farmers would have to go through a number of hurdles to get immigrant workers to come. But once they came, they could be here legally for a number of years.

Q. What is the criticism you receive most for supporting this legislation?
We have probably been criticized most for abandoning current dairy employees because we support a visa program for dairy that focuses on the future flow of employees. However, we have never abandoned the idea and the principle of facilitating the legalization of unauthorized, current employees.

What we are trying to do is emphasize that we were told a number of times that AgJOBS was the only way that immigration reform was going to be addressed for ag. A couple of years ago, we determined that it was very unlikely that AgJOBS will pass in the current environment, so we have to find a different way to reform immigration law to deal with current employees.

We are prepared to support anyone that brings to the table a workable, passable immigration program that supports and helps the dairy industry, including current employees. We understand that H-2A reform to include dairy doesn’t do all that because it doesn’t deal with current employees, but again, for us, it’s just a starting point.

Q. Explain the other immigration reform solutions on the table in Washington.
Let me start by saying that the immigration issue in Washington is awful. The discussion is not healthy. With respect to the different elements of immigration reform, you have a group primarily from the Republican Party that wants enforcement-only legislation, such as E-Verify. E-Verify is something that we don’t endorse, primarily because it’s enforcement-only legislation.

We believe we have to come up first with some type of legislation that deals with folks who are here as well as the future flow of new employees. Everything tells me passing legislation that would provide for immediate legalization, or citizenship, for those folks who are unauthorized workers already here in the United States is very unlikely in the current Congress. When we hear the horrible story of audits and raids, we ask, “What can help the dairy industry now?”

One immediate action that can be taken is to facilitate the legal flow of authorized workers through a visa program, but the key for dairy farmers is they must be able to apply for long-term visas. A visa can’t be for three, six or 10 months. It has to be for several years.

I think that nothing will be passed unless we find a solution that brings together a little bit of enforcement, a little bit of future employee flow and somehow addresses how to deal with workers who are already here.

Q. Does NMPF support the DREAM Act?
Yes, I think that it may definitely help some folks who have been here for many, many years and brought children with them. There are a lot of individuals who have been working in dairy farms for 10 or 15 years. The program is for children who were brought by their parents as minors during a certain time period. Those people would actually be allowed to become legal and eventually have permanent residency.

But the main reason why National Milk is supportive of the DREAM Act is because our principle is that we have to deal with immigration, not just enforcement. The Dream Act will be a good start.

Q. What current reform efforts align well with dairy producers’ interests on Capitol Hill?
Unfortunately, there is not much. There is AgJOBS, which unfortunately there is significant opposition to. Then you have enforcement-only legislation, which we don’t want. Finally, the fact is that there are not a lot of members of Congress who want to actually deal with this issue as a whole.

Q. Do the dairy industry’s political interests more closely align with one party or another?
Instead of saying that we align more with one party or another, I would say that certainly the Republicans have had a much more hard line on the immigration issue than the Democrats. Republicans are more prone to deal with immigration reform by dealing with current employees who are unauthorized to work here.

I would say that it has been easier to discuss this issue with Democrats than Republicans. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to work with Republicans. In fact, we’re working with many Republicans. We need Republicans to pass something, and we need to find something that the Republican Party and our Republican friends will feel comfortable enough to approve, and that’s what we need to focus on.

Q. Who is the dairy industry’s biggest non-ag ally?
One of the biggest allies that we have had working for dairy is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. NMPF has been honored to be part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s immigration committee.

Q. Can immigration reform be solved on a state-by-state basis?
No, we need one federal legislation. The most extreme, radical positions on immigration are the legislation from some of the states. We certainly think that’s absolutely the wrong way to do this.

Q. What’s the likelihood of this new proposal becoming law?
It’s a long process. We have to gain more co-sponsors, but one of the main reasons that we have supported legislation out there is that we want to be prepared. If there is any vehicle that deals with immigration, that perhaps we can attach this legislation to, we want to be ready. I’m not suggesting that we have an easy road ahead of us to actually getting H-2A for dairy passed.

Q. Going forward, does immigration reform get easier or harder?
Definitely harder. Any controversial issue in a presidential election makes change a lot more difficult. PD