Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

Farm Labor Policy

Milking a labor force. A group of six Mexican veterinarians has filed a federal human trafficking lawsuit against the owners of an Idaho dairy farm and the lawyer who arranged work visas, the Associated Press reports. The veterinarians claim they were recruited to work as animal scientists and instead were forced to do menial labor on the farm for about a year amidst threats of deportation.

By hiring employees under professional visas, Funk Dairy Inc. was able to circumnavigate immigration laws that apply to general laborers.

Most of the veterinarians learned about the opportunity through their universities and chose to take the position because the pay was competitive with similar positions in Mexico. Many of them thought work experience in the United States would be good for their resumes.

But when they arrived in Idaho, they say, they were expected to milk cows and perform other unskilled labor in 12-hour shifts. According to the lawsuit, the housing provided was substandard and the veterinarians received lower payment than promised.

The lawyer representing the veterinarians points to an industry-wide labor shortage as potential motivation for what he calls a “criminal conspiracy.” By hiring employees under professional visas, Funk Dairy Inc. was able to circumnavigate immigration laws that apply to general laborers.

Attorney Jeremy Pittard, a defendant in the lawsuit who allegedly arranged the professional visas, said he could not comment on working conditions. “I believe the dairies are just trying to find ways to have a legal workforce,” he told the Associated Press.

The practice of hiring foreign workers for one job, then taking advantage of their limited language skills and imperfect understanding of immigration law to force them to do a completely different job, is obviously questionable. But there’s another huge issue buried in this lawsuit: At what point did the farm labor shortage get so bad that people started luring Mexican veterinarians straight from their universities to milk cows?

The labor shortage underscores a central tension between the platform Trump campaigned on and the farmers who supported him. In his post-election statement, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall asked that the president-elect support immigration policies that don’t exacerbate the shortage. Surveys estimate that about half the farmworkers in the United States lack legitimate documentation. That means if campaign promises of mass deportation play out in real life, our agricultural workforce could face some major upheaval. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown joins The New Food Economy after working on the editorial team at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. Follow her at @hclaire_brown.