WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2015 - Milk producers are becoming increasingly dependent on immigrant workers, who now account for more than half the labor on dairy farms, a study shows.

Nearly 77,000 immigrants worked on dairy farms in 2014 out of about 150,000 employees nationwide, according to a Texas A&M study for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

The study, which updates an earlier survey, indicates that the number of immigrants working on dairy farms rose by about 35 percent in six years. 

Dairy farms that employ immigrant workers now account for 79 percent of all U.S. milk production.

“This report reinforces the urgent need for Congress to address" immigration reform, said Jim Mulhern, NMPF's president and chief executive officer. 

“Farms that rely on hired foreign workers need their current labor force as well as an effective program to ensure an adequate future workforce. And the way to do that is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

Immigration reform, however, is considered dead for this Congress even as the issue has dominated the GOP presidential race. The Republican frontrunner, billionaire Donald Trump, has called for building a wall along the entire U.S-Mexico border and deporting all workers who are in the country illegally. 

He also wants to require all employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that their workers can legally work. Farm groups strongly oppose making E-Verify mandatory unless they are allowed to import more foreign workers legally.

Many dairy producers apparently suspect their workers may be illegal immigrants. According to the 2014 survey of dairy farms, nearly 40 percent of producers have a “low to medium level of confidence” in their workers’ employment documents. Nonetheless, 80 percent of the surveyed farms said they would continue to hire immigrants despite concerns that they could be subject to audits or raids. 

Government audits have reportedly slowed as the Obama administration has shifted its enforcement efforts to the border. 

Trump’s immigration message has captivated Republican voters, according to some House conservatives. “We better start listening to what he’s saying and adopt that in our platforms, because it’s resonating with the American people,” Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said Wednesday.

Keep up with news in the world of agriculture as it happens. Sign up for a four-week free trial of Agri-Pulse.