There’s a cultural and economic collision occurring in southern Idaho. On one side, the anti-immigrant sentiment has expanded, fueled by conservative talk radio and the rhetoric of the Trump administration. On the other side, the dairy industry – long quiet – is speaking out about their reliance on a foreign-born labor force. And the prospect of a new contract for the county jail has both sides agitated.
This gleaming warehouse is clean for a dairy farm. We’re in Jerome County, at the center of the booming Idaho dairy industry. A worker – female, Hispanic, in a baggy uniform – is popping rubber nipples off a plastic rack. They’ve just been washed and are about to be used on bottles to feed hundreds of young calves.
The owner of the dairy marvels at the woman’s speed and skill and says, “Look at that; it’s amazing. The babies got to be fed twice a day.”
The dairy owner won’t give his name, because of the stories he’s been telling, about the dairy workers who are undocumented immigrants. Foreign-born labor is the engine of this industry that provides Idaho with $10 billion in annual sales. And it’s hard to find workers – with or without papers - when unemployment is at 3 percent, the lowest in a decade.
“Clearly without a doubt,” says the farmer, “the number-one issue facing agriculture today, especially dairies, is labor. And it’s reached a critical stage. And it’s all the way from Maine to California to Idaho.”
It’s tough to hire in a competitive market. There are “pull factors.” For example, higher wages elsewhere that pull workers away. But there are “push factors,” too. In early July, a group of protestors overwhelmed the Jerome County Courthouse. Residents were protesting a proposed contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to lease space at the county jail to detain and deport immigrants.
At this public hearing, the crowd spilled out of the courtroom, down the stairwell, and out the doors. Jerome resident Shannon Perez, who is not Hispanic, says “we actually pushed our way up into the courthouse, into the courtroom upstairs. It was hot. But it was such a touchy subject. I have never seen that big of a turnout of Hispanics, going against . . . wanting to be heard.”
County commissioner Charlie Howell has been chairman for the past a decade. He was “flabbergasted” by the turnout, and explains why it touched a nerve, “The opposition is: the presence of ICE in the community. It’s the presence of ICE in the community, an extended presence, that intimidates the local workers.”
But he also hears from those who favor the ICE contract. “There’s kind of two main thrusts,” explains Charlie. “‘Why are we concerned about illegals, because are they supposed to be here anyway?’ That’s one of the concerns, but the main plus of the project is 50 beds at $75 a day, guaranteed. That’s about $1.3 or $1.4 million dollars a year. It’s kind of tough to turn down those numbers when you first initially look at it."
Howell has to weigh that potential income gain against the potential income loss from the dairy farmers who claim that just the specter of deportation has scared away their workers.
“Jerome’s economic driver is the dairies,” says Howell, “and the agriculture. That’s what drives the county. And the Magic Valley basically. So we gain the $1.3. or $1.4 million. What’s your return on investment of losing workers, losing employees, slowing your businesses down?”
Others aren’t persuaded by the plight of the dairy industry, like conservative talk radio host Bill Colley, from his program on Fox affiliate KLIX in Twin Falls.
On a program this summer, he asked, “Did you happen to see the story in the Times-News this week that if Idaho had a drop in its illegal alien population, we would lose a good chunk of the farm workers in this state? As if somehow that’s all the more reason to keep people here and keep them lined up at social services and dropping anchor babies.”
Bob Naerebout leads the Idaho Dairyman’s Association and knows rhetoric like this has taken hold. “Talk radio’s purpose is for ratings,” he says. “Their purpose isn’t to try to bring the facts. It’s all about ratings for them.”
He says they’re missing the point. Unlike other agriculture, dairy is year-round. There are no temporary work visas like those allowed for seasonal crop workers.
According to Naerebout, “there’s not a program we can go to and apply for workers. The fact that our country for the last decade-plus been trying to do something on immigration reform and hasn’t been able to get anything accomplished.”
It’s not just milk producers, but milk processors, too, like Chobani, which built one of the world’s largest yogurt factories in the valley. Statewide, Idaho dairies employ 8,100 people and create another 3,700 jobs for milk processors. Chobani signed onto the Dairyman’s Association’s letter opposing the jail contract, reminding the commissioners the industry’s economic impact goes far beyond cheese, milk and yogurt.
As goes the dairies, so goes southern Idaho, according to this dairy farmer: “I mean, put yourself in our shoes. The perfect storm is brewing. They’re building a wall, tougher immigration policies. Low unemployment rate. A booming economy. And we’re still milking cows and trying to get them milked every day.”
In the milking room, a woman is working through a 12-hour day, moving along a row of cows, attaching suction pumps to their udders. It’s dirty work. “The cows poop all the time,” she says in Spanish. An occupational hazard is getting kicked in the head.
More than one-third of Jerome County is Hispanic, at least, those who are counted. Above this dairy fly three flags: Idaho, the U.S. and Mexico. But on the main street in Jerome, outside a motorcycle accessories shop, there’s another flag flying: the confederate battle flag. It signals the latest front in the culture wars. Inside the shop, there’s strong support for leasing the county jail to immigration officers.
“I think it’s good for the town. I think it’s good for the community,” states Marty Fuqua, from behind the counter. He says his business has grown, but he doesn’t tie his success directly to the dairy industry in Jerome, even though this city of 23,000 is dominated by 55 dairies.
He supports the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration, saying “the problem is that they’re coming across illegally, doing their drugs, doing their crimes, doing, you know, rape, rob and murder. And then they expect a free ride. Well, you’re going to get a free ride. Straight to our jail and straight back to your country.”
Ryan Bennett sits nearby and nods his head in agreement. He grew up here and knows the tensions first-hand. One day at work, at the Jerome Cheese factory, a friend of his suddenly disappeared.
“He got deported,” says Bennett. “And he was one of the greatest guys I know. I had no idea. He was paying taxes and stuff. But he had false documents. And that really hit me in the heart.”
He feels the debate is tearing up his town, with “this side is fighting that side and that side fighting this side; it’s kind of a big mess. He looks beyond Jerome for political solutions, saying, “I wish the state and federal agencies could help out more.”
Idaho’s representatives in Washington are well aware of Jerome’s problems. U.S. Senator Jim Risch tells Boise State Public Radio, “Their industry is clear evidence why we need a good, workable guest worker program.” It’s a sentiment U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson echoes, but critics say neither politician is doing much about it.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers are making it even harder. Earlier this year, Idaho’s other U.S. Congressman, Raul Labrador, sponsored legislation that would allow local officials to prohibit refugees from settling in their communities.
Back on the dairy farm, Bob Naerebout and the dairy owner bounce along in a truck between the vast cattle pens and towering storage silos. They reminisce about legislative attempts in years past that came close to a solution. But now that political gridlock is entrenched, their business future seems to be in limbo.
In quiet frustration, the dairy owner asks Naerebout a question to which he well knows the answer: “Bob, why can’t they – why we get an immigration bill?” Naerabout responds, “Because we have too many politicians and we do not have enough statesmen.”
Indecision is a problem in Washington D.C and here in Jerome County. At the moment, leasing the jail to immigration enforcement is on hold, as the commissioners weigh their options.
In the Magic Valley, there’s a saying: “The milk never stops going, the cheese never stops going.” But political solutions, on the other hand, take a long time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This reporting is a collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism. There is another version of this investigative story in the online magazine, POLITICO.
Find Tom Michael on Twitter @tom2michael
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