Employers deal daily with the broken immigration system

It’s hard to find employers willing to talk on the record about the problems they have finding workers to keep Kansas dairies, feedlots, packing plants, large grain farms and even the rare vegetable grower operating.

They are, they say, too afraid of being targeted by the Department of Labor or the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm. But those a little removed from the immediate fray and those who deal with the legal issues are more willing to talk.

Vaughn Cook, who once needed to hire immigrant help, says he no longer does. “But I remember being on my own and what a struggle it was,” he says. For his farm, he says, he finally did manage to hire a legal immigrant worker and went through the lengthy nightmare that worker faced trying to hold his long-distance family together through the maze of rules and wait times for everyone to be reunited.

Key Points

• Many employers are afraid to talk about immigration issues.

• Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman talks about the state’s efforts.

• Immigration attorney says reform is needed at the federal level.

“I felt so bad for him,” Cook says. “He was a good worker and someone who tried to play by all the rules. It took him 14 years to finally get his wife and youngest kids here. But his oldest turned 16 before he got everything through, so they weren’t able to come. The last I heard, they were still trying.”

At least two Kansas dairies have postponed expansion plans because they couldn’t figure out how they would find workers.

“There’s a perception out there that if we just paid better, there would be plenty of American citizens taking these jobs,” one dairyman says. “That’s just not true. I pay up to $17.50 an hour. I offer full benefits — medical, dental, vision and life insurance.

We have a retirement plan and a generous match. We don’t get American workers. They don’t want to work with animals, they don’t want to live in rural Kansas, they don’t want to work outside in the weather. We advertise and advertise. We don’t get applicants.”

At the Kansas Dairy Association annual meeting in Hutchinson Feb. 11, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman acknowledged that struggle when he talked about an effort in Kansas to allow companies to legally hire undocumented workers who are already working here.

Rodman acknowledged that could be a long time coming. He hinted at another effort to help Kansas employers find workers in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory whose residents are already U.S. citizens.

A vegetable grower in north-central Kansas says he and others who hire migrant workers for seasonal work struggle to keep abreast of changes in the rules, and spend thousands of dollars annually to pay fees for the temporary worker program.

Mike Feltman, an immigration attorney who practices in Dodge City, says he sees the struggles of employers every day in trying to find and hire legal workers.

“The system is just flat-out broken,” Feltman says. “We need comprehensive reform at the federal level.”

He says he applauds the efforts of state legislators to craft a solution to help Kansas employers, but doubts that it will be successful.

States can’t fix this problem on their own, he says, because immigration law is federal. At the same time, he says, he is happy to see the discussion turn to the real problem employers face rather than constant concern about illegal immigrants.

He says a fix would be as simple as adding “agricultural worker” to the list of needed occupations that are open to immigrants without limit.

“Getting here legally or obtaining legal status after you are here is just so extremely difficult,” he says. “There’s a roadblock at every turn. It makes no sense at all,” Feltman says. “Here we have businesses struggling to find workers.

We have towns losing population and schools closing because there are no children. And our elected officials are doing everything they can to keep people who want to be here from being able to take those jobs, populate our towns and fill our classrooms. It’s crazy.”


EMPLOYER STRUGGLE: Finding workers to take jobs in the state’s dairies, feedlots and packing plants is a struggle, made worse by archaic, restrictive immigration laws.

This article published in the March, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.