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Our View: Immigration Reform Key to Magic Valley Growth

Don’t expect Congress to take up immigration reform any time soon – probably not until we have a new president, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson told the Times-News editorial board last week.

That’s devastating news to thousands of workers and employers in the Magic Valley, who literally can no longer afford to wait.

As we reported in our last installment of Nuevo Jerome, our special series on Hispanics, labor experts estimate more than 5,000 people are employed in the region’s dairy industry. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2012 that 43 percent of farmworkers in Idaho are undocumented immigrants, and that a third of the undocumented immigrants in the state work in agriculture.

Congress’s failure to reform immigration has long plagued the Magic Valley’s dairy industry, but recent economic and demographic shifts are making things even worse. Low unemployment is luring dairy workers into other industries where wages and working conditions are sometimes better. Couple that with consolidation in the dairy industry that‘s resulted in fewer but significantly larger dairies, and the industry now faces a serious labor shortage.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, says the labor shortage is keeping dairies from expanding – and, in turn – the Magic Valley economy from growing.

Some dairy farmers have turned to refugees from the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, but the relatively small number of incoming refugees won’t be enough to impact the labor shortage.

So what’s the fix?

The Magic Valley needs Congress to act soon on an immigration reform bill that would allow the dairy industry to sustain a labor force large enough to keep the regional economy growing.

Lawmakers would be wise to revisit policy in the works in 2013, when the Senate passed a reform bill. (Idaho’s dairy industry supported it.) The House was perhaps just days away from voting on its version of a bill when Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, surprisingly lost reelection and a crisis at the border effectively killed any chance at immigration reform.

Frustratingly, Republicans and Democrats agree something must be done. Members of both parties use the word “broken” to describe current policy. More maddeningly, they also appear to agree on the core principles of a fix: strengthening border security, a pathway to citizenship for some, legal status for most. But so far, they’ve allowed politics to trump policy and have failed to act.

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