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Experts Say Push for Immigration Reform Would Greatly Impact Ag Economy

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The question over accused murderer Cristhian Rivera's immigration status has, in some ways, turned the Tibbetts case into a political debate.

President Donald Trump, Governor Kim Reynolds, and Senator Joni Ernst are all using it as an example of why they’re pushing for stronger immigration laws.

Focusing on the political fallout, experts say changing immigration laws will undoubtedly impact the agriculture economy not just in Iowa, but nationwide.

They say the workforce willing to take on the labor intensive, lower paying jobs found in livestock farming is shrinking.

With unemployment rates low, farmers turn to immigrants.

“They are one of the main and if not only reasons that a lot of those jobs are filled” said Jennifer Zwagerman, Associate Director of the Ag Law Center at Drake University.

She says it's estimated that 75% of the national ag workforce is made up of immigrants, and half of them are thought to be in the country illegally. She says the economic impact of reducing that workforce is massive.

“Some of the more recent estimates that [there could be] up to 60 billion dollars in lost economic damages if the labor market were to disappear” she said.

“If there was a crackdown on even legal immigration coming into the country, those with work authorizations, visa programs, any kind of work status, [it] makes a difference in the agriculture labor market as well” said Zwagerman.

State Representative Dave Maxwell (R) acknowledges that addressing immigration isn't cut and dry.

"I have no idea how many illegal aliens we have, but I know there’s a lot of workers, you know both in construction and on some of your bigger farm operations that without them, I don’t know that we would be able to function. I have a small business. Help is really hard to find, good help is very difficult and if one comes in and he’s a good worker, I'm sure there’d be reason not to question him too much. It’s a touchy area” said Maxwell on Tuesday.

Zwagerman says that's especially true in agriculture.  She says many immigrants from Mexico have a background in raising livestock and are willing to stay on for longer periods of time.

“So for an employer, having somebody who may have some familiarity…even with language challenges…familiarity with the work and a willingness to do the work more than anything is an incentive there” she said.

Zwagerman says she believes most farmers are doing their due diligence to check if workers are documented, and with recent raids are inclined to do so, but says not all documents they receive are legit.