U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador said recently that 90 percent of the approximately 8,300 people on these farms' payrolls are illegal immigrants.
"There is no visa for them to be able to work here and nobody else will do those jobs," he told the Bonner County Daily Bee.
Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, said he uses a slightly lower figure, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates and Idaho's experience with audits by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"The number falls between 75 and 80 percent," Naerebout said. "Each operation is going to be different - some won't be that high."
After an ICE audit finds incorrect documentation of a Social Security number or work visa, employees have an opportunity to provide evidence of legal status.
With so many undocumented workers harvesting milk, Naerebout said, there are social as well as legal consequences, including parents who shy from engaging in their communities out of fear of being caught and leaving their children in distress.
"If they can't correct it, they lose their jobs and they go offinto society," Naerebout said. "For the dairy industry, it goes beyond just, 'We need a workforce.' It goes to our current workforce and how they feel in society, whether they're contributors to society."
Naerebout will be in Washington, D.C., later this week to attend his first board meeting of the National Immigration Forum. He said Monday that he was attracted by the group's efforts combining employers, law enforcement and religious leaders as advocates.
"It's Bibles, business and badges," Naerebout said. "It's not only from a business point of view. It's also looking from a scriptural point of view of what we should be doing as Christians on this issue and what should our attitude be as Christians toward those foreign-born laborers who are here in our country."
Founded in 1982, the group says it "advocates for the value of immigrants and immigration to our nation. In service to this mission, the forum promotes responsible federal immigration policies, addressing today's economic and national security needs while honoring the ideals of our Founding Fathers, who created America as a land of opportunity."
The group's directors include Jeb Bush Jr., son of the former Florida governor; former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, now a lawyer in private practice with Troutman Sanders, an international firm; and the Most Rev. Jaime Soto, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.