Idaho's dairy industry employs more than 22,730 individuals and allied industries employ an additional 13,470 workers. Pumping more than 12.7 billion pounds of milk each year from approximately half a million Idaho dairy cows, the Gem State is the second-largest milk producing state in the western United States and ranks third in the nation.
So, it was of particular note late Thursday when the Milk Producers of Idaho announced that it was pleased with the U.S. Senate passage of sweeping immigration reform, in the form of Senate Bill 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.
"Idaho agriculture in general and the Idaho dairy industry in particular have been struggling to find workers in the domestic market who are willing to perform the work needed to provide an abundant and safe food supply for our country," said Brent Olmstead, MPI director. "This legislation, should it become law, will greatly assist the largest industry in Idaho with the ability to grow and increase productivity."
The MPI said it was "disappointed" that Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch "chose to not join in the bipartisan effort to fix the current immigration system. We have been and will continue to work with the Idaho delegation in the House to keep the current momentum on immigration reform going."
With Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voting "no" in a losing effort, the U.S. Senate Thursday afternoon approved landmark immigration reform, the biggest overhaul in a generation, impacting at least 11,000,000 undocumented individuals in the United States.
By a 68-32 approval, with 14 Republicans joining the Democratic majority, the Senate bill provides a 13-year path toward citizenship for unauthorized immigrants to the United States and toughens border security to record levels.
Crapo argued that the just-passed measure, known as Senate Bill 744, did an inadequate job in stopping what he called "the rising problem of visa overstays."
"These legal, temporary immigrants never leave the country on the required departure date, and often remain for years due to the lack of exit accountability. As a result, visa overstays account for an estimated 40 percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States," said Crapo.
Meanwhile, House Republican Speaker Rep. John Boehner wasted no time in dousing any optimism about passage from the GOP-controlled House.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes," said Boehner. "We're going to do our own bill."
The Senate approval followed five days of marathon sessions to secure bipartisan support, while surviving the consideration of more than 300 separate amendments to the legislation. The 14 Republican votes were secured primarily through the addition of nearly $40 billion over the next decade for border enforcement including 20,000 new Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo, Jim Risch and their Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate aren't thrilled with the swift movement of the immigration reform bill that could come up for a landmark vote as early as this afternoon.
"Comprehensive immigration reform is not something that the Senate should rush through," Crapo said earlier today. "I cannot support this bill as it stands."
In particular, Crapo said he and Risch say border security measures, which would dramatically increase, still aren't enough.
"This legislation ... is just a political Band-Aid that does nothing to solve the long-term problem of illegal immigration," said Risch. "And it commits U.S. taxpayers to turn over their hard-earned money to someone who is not a citizen."
But proponents are reminding Crapo, Risch and anyone else who might listen that the landmark legislation would help 11 million people "get right with the law," according to Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The bill allocates a budget for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents and the completion of 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. It would become the first major rewrite of U.S. immigration policy since 1986 and would formalize a path to citizenship for America's 11 million undocumented persons.
Tucked deep into the sweeping immigration reform package moving toward what many expect to be passage in the U.S. Senate is a provision that could readily affect every American who takes a new job. The proposed requirement would have every U.S. employer use the so-called E-Verify system to validate the legal eligibility to work of every potential new employee.
This morning's New York Times reports that most Americans are unaware of the mandate's broad scope.
“I don’t think people really understand that this creates a regulation not just for every employer, or for every immigrant, but also for every citizen in this country,” said David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said he would favor the E-Verify expansion, but has introduced an amendment to the provision that would place a "use restriction" on which E-Verify photographs could or couldn't be used in a searchable database.
"Unless otherwise directed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will have the ability to maintain a database of photos provided by participating state agencies, essentially moving down the path toward a national ID system," said Crapo. "Recent revelations about the extent of government surveillance, be it the IRS, CFPB or NSA, have many Idahoans concerned about the erosion of their privacy."
Simply put, Crapo's amendment would order the DHS not to use, disclose or store the photos for any purpose other than employment verification.
The Times reports that Homeland Security officials insist that errors are rare, and that they are "confident the system can handle the expansion." DHS says a recently added tool will allow employers to match a photo in the E-Verify system with a document presented by the new employee. A separate tool would allow the public to check themselves before starting a job search.
Four busloads of supporters from as far away as Burley and as close as Boise assembled at Julia Davis Park the evening of May 1 before marching down Capitol Blvd. to urge Congress to pass laws which would change the country's policies on immigration.
Many bore signs with the words "Si, Se Puede!" (Yes, it is possible), evoking worker's rights advocate Cesar Chavez, now a rallying cry for immigration reform rallies across the country.
Joined by members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Idaho Community Action Network, AFL-CIO and other groups, advocates called for comprehensive reform in Washington, D.C., including the creation of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, and a call to keep families together.
It's estimated that millions of families in America include at least one undocumented relative, creating a huge dilemma: Does the U.S. government begin tearing families apart based on their immigration status?
18-year-olds Sitlaly Coss, Dajia Osornio and Gardenia Cuanos, Seniors at Nampa's Vallivue High School, are part of the Future Hispanic Leaders of America. They took part in the rally by circulating with clipboards and letters of support to be sent to Idaho Senator Mike Crapo's office.
"We're here to have our voices heard," said Cuanos.
Young adults were a common sight in the crowd, bearing banners or posters and marching alongside older generations. At the end of the march in Boise's Capitol Park, David Gutierrez, 16, of Burley High School, said the issue of immigration reform hits close to home.
"My parents, they're still treated as illegals. They can't share the opportunities that I can because they're illegal," he said.
He said his parents have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years but have struggled to find work. Gutierrez is an American citizen and plans to study landscape architecture at the University of Idaho upon graduation. 17-year-old Angela Flores, a 15-year resident of the United States, told rally-goers she is "undocumented and unafraid."
"We are the new Americans of this country," she said. "Our voice and our vote are the future of this country."
The United States is on the verge of another surge of undocumented migrants streaming into the country. And for proof, officials need look only to the border. Not the U.S.-Mexico border, but Mexico's porous southern boundary with Central America.
This morning's New York Times reports that "an increasing number of migrants heading to the United States" are crossing freely into Mexico under the gaze of Mexican authorities, as many Central Americans flee the violence and economic stagnation of their homes. In fact, American arrests of illegal crossers from countries, other than Mexico—mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—more than doubled along the southwest border of the United States last year, according to the Times, fom 46,997 in 2011 to 94,532 in 2012.
The Times' Randal Archibold, reporting from Ciudad Hidalgo, said Mexican law enforcement officers sit back and watch as migrants cross the narrow Suchiate River separating Mexico and Guatemala.
"If they are without papers, we would have to house and feed them until the immigration authorities come," said one of the police officers. "We don't have a budget for that."
Next week, President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Central American presidents when they're expected to discuss immigration, public safety and improving their region's economy.
Political alliances and divisions are being forged this week in the nation's capital as the U.S. Senate takes up a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws. But as lawmakers wrangle with their political differences, as many as 11,500,000 undocumented immigrants who are in every corner of the United States wait nervously, many of them under the radar of law enforcement or social services.
"We're your partners and co-workers. We sit next to you in church," Norma Duarte told Boise Weekly. "I was once an immigrant here; now, I'm a legal citizen. But there are a lot of immigrants who are afraid to talk to you about their reality."
But in this Wednesday's edition of BW, we speak to immigrants, some of them undocumented, about their hopes and fears.
"Amamos Idaho," one family told BW, whose patriarch and matriarch work 12-hour days in the fields of Canyon County.
Details are starting to emerge surrounding a new bipartisan immigration bill which, if passed into law, would provide a legal path to immigration for millions of undocumented immigrants formerly denied such an opportunity.
Undocumented immigrants would have to pay $2,000 in fines as well as some fees to embark on a thirteen-year path to legal citizenship, which would only come into play once the U.S. has secured its border with Mexico.
If undocumented citizens arrived in the U.S. prior to December 31, 2011, and stayed continuously since, the bill would allow them to apply for provisional legal status as soon as six months after the measure would be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The new legislation would also create new immigration opportunities for both low- and high-skill workers, while employers would be under more pressure to verify the immigration status of their employees.
The bill would also pour billions of dollars into new international border controls, including 3,500 new federal agents on the Mexican border and surveillance drones.
A bipartisan effort, shepherded by the so-called "Gang of Eight," is responsible for the compromise legislation: Democratic Senators Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, along with Republican Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Representatives of the nation's farmers have plowed through what they say may have been the final snag in a proposal for sweeping immigration reform—expected to be debated in the U.S. Senate in the next two weeks. The deal would see the creation of a so-called "blue card" for undocumented workers already in the United States.
The agreement—reached late Friday—would set the terms of wages, visas and working conditions for migrant workers. In effect, the blue card program would allow for up to 336,000 visas for undocumented farm workers.
Growers were arguing for lower wages and fewer visa limitations while labor unions sought higher wages and visa caps. The compromise was reached when labor leaders agreed to longer-lasting visas and growers agreed to foot the bill for housing and transportation costs while keeping slightly lower wages. Growers would ultimately pay visa holders for transportation in and out of the country as well as a housing allowance, if adequate housing is not provided.
A blue card would require at least two years of farm work and a commitment to work in agriculture for at least another five years.
When the U.S. Congress takes up immigration reform later this week, it'll be hearing from a 17-year-old Treasure Valley student who has been invited to share her story as she advocates the so-called "Dream Act," which would allow undocumented students the opportunity to be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship.
"Most of my family and friends are dreams," Samantha Rodriguez told the Idaho Press-Tribune. "[The Idaho Community Action Network] selected me to go to D.C. and make my story known. Hopefully it will help the immigration reform pass as well as the Dream Act. Hopefully it will inspire congressman to get it passed."
ICAN representatives spotted Rodriguez at the March 8 "Keeping Families Together" bus tour, which rolled into the Nampa Hispanic Cultural Center. The tour was greeted by a rally of families urging lawmakers to give immigrants a chance to become citizens.
Rodriguez said her interest in the struggle started when she was in the fifth grade as her mother was receiving help from a lawyer to become a U.S. citizen. Now, Rodriguez is set to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school when she picks up her diploma from Melba High School later this spring. Her new dream is become an immigration lawyer.