Proposed changes to visa program frustrates Routt County sheepherder, industry groups |

Proposed changes to visa program frustrates Routt County sheepherder, industry groups

A sheepherder's wagon sits along Route County Road 80 in California Park. Proposed changes to an agricultural visa program could make it more difficult for sheep and goat ranchers to hire necessary employees, according to a report from the CATO Institute.
Tim Hancock/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Recently tightened restrictions on an agricultural visa worker program are causing headaches for a Routt County rancher and other sheep and goat ranches across the country. 

In a policy memo issued Dec. 14, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would end a decades-old practice of allowing sheep and goat herders from entering and staying in the country for three consecutive, back-to-back years under the H-2A program. The new rules subject petitions for herding positions to the same analysis that temporary and seasonal work visas undergo through the program.

In the memo, the federal department said the changes will make regulations more consistent and ensure fare wages for seasonal and temporary workers. The change is scheduled to take effect June 1, 2020, according to the memo. 

Opponents, including ranchers and industry groups, argue the new policy will make it harder to do business and hurt ranchers’ profits. 

Tom Maneotis, a sheep rancher based in South Routt, said the policy change would create additional hardships for what is already a difficult industry to work in. 

“We try to comply with all the regulations, but it is getting tougher and tougher,” Maneotis said. “They are trying to put us out of business.”

As Todd Hagenbuch, the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University in Routt County explained, the longer stints for herders under the H-2A have allowed ranches to hire and keep an experienced workforce. The extended time frame has been allowed since President Dwight. D. Eisenhower was in office in the 1950s. Almost all sheep and goat herders come from outside the U.S., Hagenbuch said, particularly from Latin American countries, like Peru. 

“They rely on these highly skilled, very qualified herders to do this work,” he said of sheep and goat ranchers like Maneotis. “This is not something you can just put an ad in the paper for.”

Hagenbuch said the policy change adds another layer of complexity to the hiring process, which could have a negative impact on other local ranchers. 

“It’s not a high margin kind of business to be in — it’s pretty tight. To further create issues to get quality herders here could prove real challenging for the few sheepherders we have left in the area,” he said. 

Routt County is home to about 10 sheep ranches by Hagenbuch’s count, which include generations-old operations. 

David Bier, an immigration policy analyst with the CATO Institute, called the new policy “devastating” for sheep and goat herders in a Nov. 15 article for the libertarian think tank. 

In its policy memo, Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledged the changes “may have an impact on the long-standing business practices” of sheep and goat herders.

Bier sees the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed on Dec. 11, as a proper fix for the labor issue. As he argued in his article, it would streamline the H-2A application process and create a new, year-round program for workers not only in the herding industry but in other agricultural sectors. 

In a statement, the president of the National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, echoed Bier’s support, saying the legislation would help to fix a “badly broken” farm labor system. 

“Not only would it secure a legal and adequate supply of workers for family farmers and ranchers, but it would also provide stability for the farmworkers who put food on our tables,” Johnson said. 

Maneotis said being a sheepherder is an arduous job. It requires workers to be on call for 24 hours each day, ready to respond if predators threaten the herd, animals escape or other problems arise.

“In the U.S., you aren’t going to find anyone who wants to do that job,” he said. 

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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