A bill before an agriculture committee in the Idaho legislature aims to keep shepherds from abandoning their flocks. The state's wool industry still relies on old-fashioned sheep herders but some are leaving those positions for better jobs. Now, the bill has hit a nerve with immigrant rights groups.
The Idaho Wool Growers Association wants to make abandoning sheep on the open range a misdemeanor, punishable with jail time in Idaho. Sheep operations employ mainly Peruvian guest workers to protect their flocks from wolves and other predators. And ranchers say some herders have walked off the job for less wild and woolly work that pays better.
Taking a different job violates the terms of the guest worker visa, but the industry says that’s not enough.
The get-tough approach worries Fernando Mejia. He works on immigration issues at the Idaho Community Action Network.
“We shouldn't be criminalizing a specific group of people because they want to have a better life, they want to have a better future," Mejia says. "But rather than that, we should be focusing on the fact – why we're having a systematic problem with a set of employers.”
Mejia says the guest worker program should be changed at the federal level to give workers more choice.
But ranchers typically cover the costs of bringing herders to the U.S., a bill that can run into the thousands of dollars.