Elizabeth Kohtz grew up on a family farm in Idaho where her father relied on migrant workers to keep the dairy running. Immigration policy limited his access to workers. Today, Kohtz works as a dairy veterinarian and sees the same troubling labor challenges play out in her clients’ businesses.
When Elizabeth Kohtz was a young girl growing up on a spacious Idaho dairy farm, she saw how much her father loved the animals, especially the cows. But caring for the cows was not easy. Running a dairy requires workers “24-7, 365 days a year,” says Kohtz. The work requires technical skills. “It’s not easy to put a milking machine on a cow,” she says. And if there’s a shortage of helping hands and cows don’t get milked on time, they can get sick. In addition to Kohtz’s older brother and cousins, her father depended on Hispanic migrant workers. Still, “it was hard,” Kohtz says, recalling how immigration policies limited the amount of time these workers could stay. “We’d get some hired and trained, and then they would move away.”
In these rural communities, these immigrants have really integrated; they’ve become a part of the community.
“Daily I see the need for immigration reform,” Kohtz says. She is now a veterinarian, a field that puts her in close communication with owners and managers of dairies. In addition to tending to the medical needs of cows, she conducts worker trainings. She sees the struggles of her own family farm replicated across the state. “I am constantly seeing new workers on dairies,” she says. “I will have just trained a team of workers, and a few days later, there will be a new employee. This makes it difficult for owners and managers to have faith in their work force. It becomes a safety issue for both employees and animals, and it costs farmers more money.”
Kohtz believes the economic case for immigration reform is compelling on many levels. First, welcoming new workers will not take jobs from Americans. “My clients are simply unable to find American workers to fill these jobs. These are well-paid jobs, but we still can’t find U.S. workers willing to fill them,” she says. Second, as the third-largest dairy state in the United States, with an employee base that is estimated to be 70-percent foreign, immigration reform will only boost Idaho’s income. “The only way for dairies to remain profitable, and thus stay in business, is if they have access to a stable, reliable workforce,” says Kohtz, adding, “if we don’t have this, food becomes incredibly expensive.”
Kohtz is also moved by the moral case for immigration reform. “A lot of the workers I end up working with are undocumented, and to see their struggles is, especially as a mother, heartbreaking,” she says. Kohtz sees how much new immigrants enrich her community. “Many of these immigrant workers have become my friends. In these rural communities, these immigrants have really integrated; they’ve become a part of the community,” she says. “They’re the youthful population maintaining the workforce and population growth.”