Cattle Industry Vested In Immigration Battle

Shirley McCulloch doesn’t buy cattle, process them or drive a feed truck. But her role at Circle Three Feed Yards helps assure that workers doing those tasks are legal for employment

Larry Stalcup

September 3, 2010

12 Min Read
Cattle Industry Vested In Immigration Battle

There’s a lot going on politically with immigration law these days. Are your employees looking over their shoulders? By Larry Stalcup

Shirley McCulloch doesn’t buy cattle, process them or drive a feed truck. But her role at Circle Three Feed Yards helps assure that workers doing those tasks are legal for employment.

Or bluntly put – legal in the eyes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). She makes sure their vital I-9 reports are filled out properly and verifies as closely as possible if they are in the U.S. legally.

The hugely dividing controversy surrounding the new Arizona immigration law and U.S. immigration law enforcement has a direct impact on livestock producers and feeders. Many have Hispanics making up the majority of their payrolls.

A lot of those workers are illegal – undocumented or holders of counterfeit identification documents – according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted by the Department of Labor.
Arizona officials say the state’s new law (still under question by federal courts) was proposed after an increase in the flow of drug smugglers, human traffickers and potential terrorists across its border with Mexico. They basically claimed the federal government, or the Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t securing the border, so it was up to their state to take action.

Of course, the Arizona uprising is deemed unfair among many immigrant sympathizers. But to proponents of the law, it’s needed to slow or prevent illegal border crossings – an act blamed for the shooting death of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, who was killed last March on his family’s ranch in Cochise County near the border. Authorities believe Mexican drug or immigrant smugglers committed the murder.

There are an estimated 11 million or more illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to the Center for Immigration Studies. With most illeagals being of Mexican origin, and with the total population of Mexico being 111 million, that figure represents 10% of the Mexican populace. The situation has again brought to light that, according to the National Agricultural Workers survey, nearly 60% of the nation’s agricultural workforce consists of illegal immigrants; men and women whom feedyard operators, ranchers, dairymen and farmers depend on to make their agribusinesses work. It can be argued that much of America’s crop and livestock production would halt if this segment of the workforce was lost.
McCulloch, who has worked 23 years in the office of Circle Three outside Hereford, TX, says that of their 25-27 employees, more than 15 are Hispanic. More than half of those people have been part of the feedyard’s team for a decade or longer.

“We have a workforce that is very loyal to our operations,” adds owner-manager Scott Hall. “They are important to the success of our feedyard.”

McCulloch says that since federal labor regulations were revised in 2007, only two employees have left the yard because of questionable documentation.

“We were notified that a couple of employees had fake Social Security cards,” she says. “We were told (by USCIS) they had 90 days to correct the situation. We had to let them know of the requirement in writing. They quit right before the time was up.”

Verifying legality?

Problem is, when a person applies for a job and supplies what looks like a USCIS green card, a state drivers license or Social Security card, human-resource managers in McCulloch’s capacity can only go by the supplied documents. And it’s more of a problem for smaller cattlemen or farmers with only four or five employees.

“We have nine employees, and each must have a driver’s license,” says Devon Michel, who with his twin brother, Darin, runs a 1,000-cow Angus-Simmental-cross operation in Othello, WA. “I won’t hire anyone without a drivers license, so that weeds out 99% of the people who may be here illegally. We also check their I-9, green card or Social Security card.

“But I don’t know how I can tell if they’re fake. When I was a kid in college, I worked at a bar and checked IDs. I saw some pretty good IDs.”

Marco Palma, Texas AgriLife Extension economist in College Station, says many producers are untrained in knowing the time-consuming, confusing regulations of employee documentation. “We need to remember that they’re farmers, and not immigration experts or document inspectors,” he says.
Paul S. Verdegaal, University of California-Davis farm advisor in Stockton, says verification can be difficult. But there are methods of checking document validity to a point online. “They (producers) can’t guarantee anything,” he stresses. “But they can reduce the possibility by using the E-Verify program (from USCIS) and/or a licensed labor contractor.”

“All they can do is be sure they ask for documents and review them for reasonable authenticity,” adds Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension regional educator in Rochester. “Even that is difficult, but it’s all they have today. E-verification may be useful, but many ag employers are not geared up to run that check right now.”

E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. “E-Verify is fast, free and easy to use – and it’s the best way employers can ensure a legal workforce,” says USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. (For more information, go to

The labor department’s I-9 form may be the most important employee document for employers to keep on file. “Every employee must fill out an I-9,” McCulloch says. According to USCIS, the employee must attest that he or she is a U.S. citizen or national, a lawful permanent resident, or is otherwise authorized to work for the employer in the U.S.

“The employee must present documentation to the employer establishing identity and employment authorization based on the most current lists of acceptable documents on the I-9 form,” USCIS says. The employer is then obligated, after physically examining the documents presented by the employee, to complete employer review, verification and updating of the I-9 form.

Palma says ag employers can’t discriminate when reviewing an I-9. “It’s important they allow potential workers to show proper documentation and not discriminate on the basis of looks and race,” he says. “Producers and feeders need to follow the instructions in the I-9 form, which is designed for a potential worker to prove identity and employment eligibility.”

Problem is, counterfeit green cards, drivers license and photo IDs are aplenty. But most are in the hands of immigrants who want to work in the U.S., enjoy our freedoms and provide their children with better lives. It’s the violent criminals who worry Arizona ranchers the most, according to the Arizona Cattle Growers Association (ACGA).

Immigration has been a concern in agriculture for decades, yet it’s a bigger problem today than ever before. “The federal immigration law has no effect because no one is enforcing it consistently,” Verdegaal says, adding that Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), or immigration police, have little trust among immigrants or employers alike. “Everyone is a little more distrustful when government authorities can’t be trusted or are feared.”

Many workers at feedyards, ranches, dairies and farms went through the process of becoming U.S. citizens. “Many who are now legal came in as illegal aliens and are good citizens,” Michel says. “They just want to earn a better living than they can in Mexico, just as my ancestors did when they came from Germany 120 years ago.”

A civil rights issue?

The Washington rancher gets angry when asked about a law that would question the legality of a person pulled over for a traffic violation or other reason by law enforcement. “I, as a U.S. citizen, would be very unhappy if someone asked me to prove my citizenship based on the color of my skin, since that’s how the practical implication of this (new Arizona law) will occur.

“I understand their problem (in states bordering Mexico). However, I try to be very practical. As long as America wants drugs, someone will supply them. And Mexico is a big supplier.”
Some argue that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans out of work. But Schwartau says the supply of workers doesn’t seem to be a significant problem; it’s the supply of ‘local’ employees that’s an issue.

“Even in times of higher unemployment, the longer hours, and night or early morning shifts, on dairies (or other ag operations) apparently make these jobs relatively undesirable to local workers,” he says. “Retaining local employees is more difficult than retaining Hispanic employees.”

And, raids of agribusiness and other companies by federal immigration authorities have left many workers and their employers in turmoil. In some cases, huge portions of small-town populations were uprooted after the raids.

“We need immigration reform now,” says Richard Bruce of Specialty Safety Training in Gerber, CA. He works with producers, farm labor contractors and workers on safety programs. He’s had a direct look at the ag-worker/immigration problem for years.

“We need a path to legalization that makes it possible for workers earning farm-worker wages to be able to apply for citizenship so they can become citizens of this country,” he says. “This path already requires that they learn English and our form of government.”

He stresses that experienced workers are needed. “But we also need to be able to have sufficient labor to harvest our crops with temporary labor when necessary,” Bruce says. “These workers don’t need as much training, and a temporary program would be best so they could return with their families during the off season.”

Meanwhile, McCulloch is confident in the Circle Three operation and its employee management. “We’ve really never had any problems with workers providing the documents needed,” she says. “I thought we would be checked by immigration officials after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and when the raids were conducted a few years ago. But we’ve never been checked. But, even if we are in the future, we have the proper documentation on our employees – employees who made this operation efficient.”

Larry Stalcup is an Amarillo, TX-based freelance writer.

“Restore Our Border”

Last spring, the Arizona Cattle Growers Association (ACGA) released its “Restore Our Border Security Plan,” a program that resulted after 18 months of research and work with local and state authorities, says Patrick Bray, executive vice president.

It had been in the works long before the murder of Robert Krentz, the Arizona rancher slain last March on his ranch, presumably by Mexican drug traffickers.

The 18-point plan states: “The U.S.-Mexico Border must be credibly and sustainably secured and existing immigration laws judiciously enforced. Talk is over; it’s time to act!” (see the plan at

Bray says better border security has been promoted by ACGA for over 10 years. “The dynamics of people coming across the border have changed significantly the past five years,” he says. “Ranchers had always had a good working relationship with ranchers on the other side of the border. Mexican cowboys came here to help out, and ours went there. There was a good relationship.

“But when the drug cartels and criminals took over, once they realized that people coming across the border could be drug ‘mules,’ they took over that business, as well. People wanting to come across the border looking for a better life are subject to these violent criminals.”

Richard Bruce of Specialty Safety Training, which works with ag interests out of Gerber, CA, says if good immigration/workers programs are put in place, “we will not need as much control at the border, as there won’t be a need for illegal workers. Without illegal workers crossing the border, our border patrol can concentrate on the drug smugglers and other illegal activities instead of spending much of their time and resources catching people who just want to support their families.”

Bray points out that six years ago, “Rob (Krentz) did a television news special on immigration and what they, ranchers on the border, were dealing with in thefts, robberies, vandalism and other unlawful acts. He told people that ‘we’re really going to get hurt’ with the situation. He paid the ultimate price.”
Bray says ranchers have “screamed, hollered and written letters” to the state and federal government, but little is being done on the federal side. “We can’t let what happened to Rob and his family happen to other ranch families,” he says.

“We are destined to fully secure the border.”

Take our jobs, please

Many Americans believe high unemployment and undocumented workers are related issues, but the United Farm Workers (UFW), through an effort called Take Our Jobs (, is looking to dispel that notion and underscore the contribution of such workers to the quality of life in the U.S.

UFW says 75% of all crop workers in American agriculture were born outside the U.S., and at least 50% aren’t authorized to work legally in the U.S.

Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, says, “there’s an increasingly ugly debate in this country about the role of undocumented workers in the bad economy, and they are getting as much blame in some quarters as Wall Street.” He says his group intends to work with Congress “to build a legal force for agricultural work.”

The centerpiece of the effort in the Take Our Jobs campaign is a tongue-in-cheek offer to match unemployed Americans with open jobs in agricultural production. UFW is betting that unemployed Americans will turn up their noses at the hours, wages and working conditions of U.S. production agriculture jobs, thus underscoring to the populace and legislators the need for immigrant “professional” farm workers.

“Take Our Jobs is aimed at connecting the unemployed with open agricultural jobs, but the real point is to illustrate just how much these immigrant workers are a necessary part of U.S. agriculture. Without them, we would have a real crisis in our food supply,” Rodriguez says.

UFW says there are currently 2 to 2.5 million immigrant farm workers in U.S. ag; about one-fourth of that number is involved in the livestock sector, with the remainder engaged in crop production. About 35% of those jobs exist in California, particularly the Central Valley, with the other top states being Washington, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina and Florida.

Average wages for these workers are a bit more than 50% of the average wage paid to non-agricultural workers in the U.S., and unemployment is twice that of non-agricultural workers, UFW claims. The combination of low wages and high unemployment means that the average income is only $12,000/year, and the jobs are among the most hazardous in the U.S.

Through Take Our Jobs, UFW also hopes to build awareness about legislation before Congress – AgJOBS – aimed at allowing those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days in the previous two years to get legal status.
—Joe Roybal

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