Is the solution to America’s immigration crisis hiding inside an Idaho dairy farm?

In his book ‘Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants,’ Ali Noorani presents stories of American communities directly affected by the ongoing debate on refugees and immigration

Bob Naerebout and his wife, Doris, married in 1972. They were college students. He was a 19-year-old studying dairy science. She was 21, studying to become a teacher. She is short, soft-spoken, even keeled, no-nonsense. Bob is the consummate host, looming over the table with his long legs, holding a good bottle of wine. And, when talking about immigrants and immigration, guaranteed to offer a good cry.

In 1981, when they purchased their dairy on the lower peninsula of Michigan, there were 225,000 dairies in the United States. In 1998, when they sold, there were 70,000 dairies. After adding three adopted children to their existing family, Bob and Doris headed west. They had a brief stint in Utah before Bob joined the Idaho Dairymen’s Association in 2002.

Idaho is known for the posh mountain enclaves of Sun Valley and the right-wing militias of the far north. But with the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the country, behind the large meat processing states of the Midwest, the state depends on natural resources for more than entertainment. The dairy industry accounts for 34% of the Idaho agriculture industry’s cash receipts in 2019, ranking behind California and Wisconsin in terms of milk production.

Twin Falls, Idaho, the largest city in the Magic Valley, sits at an elevation of 3,700 feet. The 125-mile drive from Boise is flat and on a clear day you can see the Sawtooth National Forest to the north. The smell of dairy farms signals your arrival in the Magic Valley.

Over the course of the 2000s, Twin Falls’ population grew from just over 35,000 to approximately 44,000 people. During this period, the Asian community grew 105%, the Black population grew 251% and Hispanic nearly 85%. Since then, the population has neared 50,000, making Twin Falls the seventh largest city in Idaho.

The Idaho dairy industry is a classic American immigration story. An initial wave of dairy families came to the United States from the Netherlands. Of that generation, Hans Brujin, a Dutch immigrant and former dairyman in Idaho, told the Idaho Press, “They either came because their farms were destroyed in the war, or they had siblings that took over the family dairy and it was time to leave.”

Durable solutions to the politics of immigration do not start at the top.

As the national dairy industry became more concentrated, the Magic Valley emerged as a critical hub. Since the mid-1990s, the number of dairy farm jobs in the region increased tenfold and the number of processing jobs increased almost fourfold. Together these 7,200 jobs made up almost 12% of employment in the six-county area in 2015. Meanwhile, the region became home to 70% of the state’s dairy cows and 10% of its people. The community was twice as Hispanic as the state overall, with a foreign-born population more likely to only speak Spanish when compared to the rest of the state.

While national leadership certainly matters, durable solutions to the politics of immigration do not start at the top. Institutions and leaders at the local level, who are deeply enmeshed in the culture and values of their community, are critical. Often, they stand alone — or with a small few — to face the strongest winds of opposition.

The challenges to global migration, and the development and implementation of reforms to our nation’s immigration systems, depend on the support and engagement of local communities. It is places like Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the country, where the tension can sometimes seem the greatest, where anti-immigrant politics and policies are downstream from a culture isolated from demographic change. 

But in Magic Valley where locals began working alongside their newest neighbors on dairy farms dotting the expanse of central Idaho something uniquely American occurred: they found human solutions to some of the nation’s more pressing immigration issues.

Immigration reform wasn’t a priority when Bob and Doris got to Twin Falls. Though it was a tight labor market, the dairies had ample access to a stable workforce. Until 2007, the immigration debate felt far away.

The relationship between dairy farmer and dairy worker is unique. It is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year operation; the cows require milking twice daily to maintain their health and productivity. As a result, dairy owners and their workers get to know each other as colleagues and friends. And, with up to 70% of all U.S. farmworkers being undocumented, and 85 to 90% of on-site dairy workers in Idaho being foreign-born, the stresses of life take on a unique quality.

Keep in mind the most common agricultural work visa, the H2-A, is available for seasonal agriculture only. But there is no dairy season, per se. And that means there is no legal pathway for an immigrant to enter the nation to work on a dairy farm. As a result, a disproportionate number of undocumented immigrants work on dairies, and live in rural communities.

At a time when most of rural America was shrinking due to declining fertility rates, mortality and struggling economies, the Magic Valley was growing — and that growth was being driven by Latino immigrants.

In Idaho, after Gov. John Evans established the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program in 1975, the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Program (CSI Refugee Program) led resettlement efforts in the Magic Valley and surrounding communities. Along the way, what began as a community of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos expanded to include Eastern Europeans and Africans. As the only provider of refugee services in South-Central Idaho, the CSI Refugee Program resettled more than 2,500 refugees and brought more than $3 million in federal resources and benefits to the Magic Valley.

At the program’s helm — Zeze Rwasama. At 19 years old, Rwasama became a refugee, fleeing the threat of violence against members of the ethnic minority tribe of Congolese Tutsis to which he belonged. Living in a refugee camp with his family, he was able to work with the United Nations and earn a scholarship to attend university in Rwanda. In 2001, the large Rwasama family relocated to Salt Lake City, where Zeze pursued more higher education and was offered the opportunity in Twin Falls to run the CSI Refugee Program in 2014.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees pressed against the borders of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, though the United States was slow to act. In April 2015, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard announced that between 1,000 and 2,000 Syrian refugees would be brought to the United States by the end of September.

When it comes to immigration, perception is reality.

Rwasama was not worried. The Refugee Center had already settled more than 1,000 refugees from Iraq, so language and cultural issues would not be an obstacle to helping people become self-sufficient. The problem was that the local press framed the story as an “influx of Syrians” at a moment Americans were seeing news reports of millions of Syrians seeking refuge.

When it comes to immigration, perception is reality. What people saw on their screens — fed by Breitbart News and Facebook memes — led them to believe their community was going to change overnight and they might become refugees in their own city.

Rwasama realized that most of the pressure against refugee resettlement was coming from outside the state. But since local leaders were not publicly defending the program, Rwasama worried about what would happen in a vacuum of accurate information if those out-of-state voices got louder. He decided to tour the small towns, 100 miles in each direction of Twin Falls, and explain the CSI Refugee Resettlement Program. As courageous and important as Rwasama’s efforts were, without allies, it was an impossible task once the national spotlight trained its eye on the Magic Valley.

Rick Martin led the local opposition and created the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center. He told Reuters, “Bringing Syrians, who are predominantly of Muslim background, maybe opening the door to terrorists pretending to be refugees.” Of course, Martin added, “We’re not against legitimate refugees. They need to be treated with dignity and respect. But it would be easy for someone to lie about their background.” Turns out there’s always a reason not to treat someone with dignity and respect.

A September 2015 community forum attracted 700 people to hear from city and federal officials. In the spring of 2016, Martin led an unsuccessful attempt to gather enough signatures to pose a ballot question about the future of the CSI Refugee Center.

Realizing there needed to be outspoken allies to the immigrant and refugee community, the dairymen, including Bob Naerebout, stepped forward and launched a petition to urge the Idaho congressional delegation to move forward with needed immigration reforms. They organized 3,100 signatures, a remarkable achievement in a conservative, rural state like Idaho. 

The IdahoDairymen’s Association played an outsized role in the political debate around immigration. They stood to benefit tremendously from reforms, and they had the access to legislators to make their case. Initially paralyzed by the political dynamics of the 2016 election, the dairymen realized that as conservatives with their own immigration story, they had a responsibility to lead the effort to advance immigration reforms.

They had come to realize, as Rwasama first saw, that the opposition came from a small, very vocal minority who only seemed large because of an outsized social media presence. Without a space for the majority to organize their voice, the loudest group seemed to be winning the debate.

Reaching beyond the association’s membership, Naerebout spent a year building a new group of community, faith, law enforcement and elected leaders that publicly acknowledged they were caught off guard by the attacks of anti-immigrant forces in 2015. To prevent a similar situation from happening again, they launched the Unity Alliance. Funded by Chobani, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, Idaho Milk Products and D.L. Evans Bank, the board grew to include representation from the Catholic, evangelical, Muslim and Latter-day Saint communities.

The dairymen were not done. Narrative change through the Unity Alliance was one thing, but systemic change was in the hands of lawmakers. And the lawmakers that would listen to dairymen may or may not listen to the Hispanic community.

In the best case, they didn’t have relationships; in the worst case, lawmakers may only see the Hispanic community as a source of labor. Naerebout, as the principal lobbyist for the association, often found himself talking about Latino community concerns with the state’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers. Latino leaders in the state trusted Naerebout to keep their interests and issues in mind as he navigated the conservative politics of Idaho. As his relationships with the Hispanic community grew and the Unity Alliance took shape, he realized there still wasn’t a seat at the table with lawmakers for the Latino community.

In early August 2019, the Dairymen’s Association board of directors gathered for dinner with Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican representing the 2nd Congressional District of Idaho. The room was full of Republicans there to support their congressman. Immigration was high on the list of issues as Trump’s ongoing demonization of immigrants and refugees provoked fear among dairy workers and dairy owners.

There were 50–60 people in the banquet room, most of them dairymen and their wives. Simpson, as the longtime, affable, politician he is, worked the room with ease. He said hello to the families he had gotten to know over the years and sat at a table towards the front of the room, off to the right. At a table at the far back left corner of the room sat a group of Hispanic leadership Naerebout had invited to attend.

Naerebout called the room to order and, before introducing Simpson, asked each person to stand and introduce themselves. The stories were not limited to those of rural Idaho. Instead, dairymen took pains to speak of their immigrant heritage and what the administration’s immigration rhetoric and policies were doing to the workforce they thought of as family.

While the presence of representatives of Idaho’s Hispanic immigrant community changed the dynamics of the room, I am not sure the dairymen would have said anything much different if that table in the back was empty. Their message had been clear for years.

Before dinner was served, a dairyman rose to offer grace, prefaced with an acknowledgment that yesterday’s story of the Dutch immigrant facing discrimination has been replaced by the story of the Latino immigrant who faces much of the same, if not worse.

At such events, the congressman would usually sit at a table of top donors or key influencers. I assumed the front and center table, with dairy and corporate representation, would be Simpson’s perch. After the prayer, Naerebout subtly guided Simpson to the table in the back corner. Congressman Simpson was going to dine with the leadership of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, among others in the Hispanic community.

At a political reception of white dairymen, Naerebout wanted to make sure the Latino community knew they were in a room of allies and that “they realize they’re important to people like Mike Simpson, which they are.” It also provided time for the congressman to ask questions and gather information that Naerebout might not be able to provide. These Latino leaders would represent themselves and their community to the congressman.

Yesterday’s story of the Dutch immigrant facing discrimination has been replaced by the story of the Latino immigrant.

It was a dinner, prefaced by years of work and persistence, that restored hope. Over the course of the evening, old and new Idaho did more than share their stories. They shared their visions for a future where immigrants were valued and statements didn’t incite hatred. From their lawmakers, this diverse room sought dialogue, compromise and unity.

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Years ago, I would say this is a story of unlikely allies working together. That no longer applies. Across race, gender, religion, even politics, people are finding a common purpose in the pursuit of justice and dignity for migrants. Which bodes well for the story of our nation.

The policy solutions are the easy part. Recognize the dignity of undocumented people by allowing them to gain citizenship, create a migration system that humanely manages the global movement of people, and establish enforcement mechanisms that maintain borders and do not place people in harm’s way. The reconciliation of our politics, much less our cultures, is the hard part.

Our character, nationally and individually, is based on how we treat people. Wherever they may live, whatever their status may be — do we recognize the value of people, regardless of citizenship? Our dignity as a nation depends on the ability of our systems to recognize the inherent value of each person.

This essay is a modified excerpt from Ali Noorani’s “Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants” published by Rowman & Littlefield. After serving as president & chief executive officer of the National Immigration Forum for 14 years, Ali Noorani was a Fellow at the Arizona State University Social Transformation Lab. In June 2022, Noorani joined the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as their Program Director for U.S. Democracy.

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