Story Loretta Sorenesen
Yankton, S.D.

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November 4, 2013
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'We'd see food production stopped:' Nebraska ranchers say immigration reform vital to their industry

Nebraska Cattlemen are among those favoring immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without proper documentation and a friendlier policy for immigrant workers.

Imperial, Neb., rancher and Nebraska Cattlemen member, Jerry Kuenning, headed up the NC committee that worked together to develop a policy proposal for legislators involved in shaping immigration reform.

“We understand that our country has a border issue in Arizona and we need a controlled process for bringing immigrants to this country,” Kuenning says. “I believe our legislators understand the issue agriculture has in finding workers. Nebraska Cattlemen is just one of 130 organizations in our state that are calling for immigration reform, so immigrant workers can find employment and we can get our work done.”

As he follows development of immigration reform, Kuenning finds it frustrating that legislators seem unwilling to acknowledge the reality of America’s need to utilize immigrant labor in so many different industries.

“There are many immigrant workers who came here legally and made the choice, for whatever reason, to overstay and not renew their visas,” Kuenning says. “Now they’re illegal. If they do return home, they’ll be on a 10-year waiting list to come back. It seems to me that we could find a way to resolve that situation in a way that makes sense for everyone involved, immigrants and employers.”

Kuenning believes one of the reasons immigrant workers choose to “overstay” is a result of the required one-month return to their homeland to renew their visa.

“They have the expense of returning home, losing a month’s wages, taking their children out of school and disrupting their lives for that extended period of time,” Kuenning says. “When they don’t return, the situation mushrooms on them as their driver’s license expires and they become a liability to their employer. Our government has refused to address the issue for so long, kicking the can down the road again and again. Now it’s a pretty big pile of cans.”

It was December 2012 when NC approved a resolution developed by an NC committee, of which Kuenning was a member.

He and his fellow NC members expect a lack of immigration reform to cause cataclysmic disorder in Nebraska’s ag economy and many other of the state’s industries.

“If we sent all the illegal immigrants back to their home country today, it would bring America to its knees financially,” Kuenning says. “We’d see food production stopped, because beef producers wouldn’t be able to take care of their animals. Crops wouldn’t get planted or harvested and cattle wouldn’t be fed. There wouldn’t be anyone to unload semis, work on highway or roofing crews or in the hospitality industry. That’s how dependent we are on immigrant labor.”

Like some other immigration reform advocates, Kuenning believes there’s a great need to educate the general public and lawmakers about the reality of the role immigrant labor plays in the U.S. economy.

“There are always two sides to any issue,” Kuenning says. “But for people like myself and my family, who work with immigrant workers every day, we understand what the problems are for both workers and employers.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the number of immigrant laborers filling agricultural jobs. It’s certain that agriculture isn’t the only industry in need of immigrant labor.

“This isn’t just a feedlot or packer or rancher problem,” Kuenning says. “It’s pretty hard to find a beef-related business that doesn’t have a need to hire immigrant labor.”

One of Kuenning’s concerns is the “fragmented” approach the House has taken to immigration reform proposal. He’d like to see more compromise and overall reform of existing immigration law.

“It’s so important for anyone concerned about immigration law to speak to their legislators either for or against reform, so they understand what their constituents expect and want,” Kuenning says. “Like it or not, just about everyone in Nebraska has a story about a great grandfather or great, great grandfather that immigrated to this country. Let’s not forget how we all got here.”

One longtime argument against immigration reform is the perception that foreign laborers take jobs away from American workers.

“We’re not hiring immigrant workers because they’re cheaper,” Kuenning says. “We’re doing it because there is no one else who will take these jobs. Immigrant workers show up with a ‘let’s get it done’ attitude and they can become very skilled at what they do. All our employees at the ranch start out at the same pay and advance if they do their job well.”

If America fails to resolve immigrant worker issues, there is potential for permanently losing food production to other countries.

“If we lose our beef industry, it’s not coming back,” Kuenning says. “Immigrants come here because they are treated well. They become tax payers and family-oriented, productive citizens. The most important things beef producers can do is become educated on this topic. Take time to understand the situation. Whichever side you come down on, let legislators know so they can shape laws that favor the realities of the beef industry. It’s a serious issue. It’s easy to fly under the radar, but law makers need to hear from grassroots people like us.”

“Nebraska Cattlemen has taken a stand in favor of a citizenship path for immigrants without proper documentation,” Kuenning adds. “That needs to include background checks to ensure we’re not legalizing criminals. If back taxes are owed, that needs to be taken care of. We don’t see this as some kind of handout. It should be a formal legalization process. We just know American employers can’t keep dealing with immigrant workers the same way we have been for so many years.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Nov 1, 2013 11:44AM Published Nov 14, 2013 05:02PM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.