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Got migrants? Undocumented workers are integral to the survival of Wisconsin dairy farms
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Credit:Pierre-Paul Pariseau

John Rosenow remembers when farming used to be a local business. When your family needed help, you would hire workers from the community, people you knew.

In the mid-'90s, that started to change.

"Most people would rather do anything than work on a farm," says Rosenow, co-owner of a fifth-generation farm with 550 milk cows in Buffalo County. "There's a stigma to working on farms - it's always the lowest-class job. It's dirty, smelly, manual labor. It can be very cold, it can be very hot."

Rosenow still hires locally when he can but says, "our society is changing drastically. Even way out here, it's gone from agrarian to rural, residential."

In 1998, when Rosenow was in desperate need of help, he spotted an ad in a trade magazine from Amigos Inc. in Dallas, Texas. For $350, the company offered to provide a farmhand. Rosenow sent the money, and a few days later a Mexican named Manuel arrived by bus.

Manuel worked hard, 10 hours a day, even refusing to take days off, because he had nothing to do but work. But he was lonely and returned home to his family after just 54 days.

Rosenow then decided to hire two migrant workers, hoping they'd keep each other company. Today, nine of Rosenow's 20 employees are immigrants from Mexico. He couldn't survive without them. His cows need to be milked several times a day, around the clock, 365 days a year. So he needs reliable help, which means hiring immigrants, often undocumented.

"There's a whole list of jobs Americans would prefer not to do," Rosenow says. "They got an education so they don't have to do those jobs. Immigrants for the past 100 years have filled the jobs people don't want to do."

He adds, "The food system is totally dependent on immigrant labor."

That's long been true on produce farms, which rely on temporary migrant workers to harvest crops, but it's a relatively new phenomenon on dairy farms. Dairy farms are becoming increasingly dependent on the labor of immigrants, many of whom are here illegally.

Indeed, among immigrants, dairy farms are prized jobs. The money is better and the work is year-round, so they don't have to move their families back and forth following the growing seasons. As the immigration debate rages nationally - with some states deciding they need to enforce immigration laws themselves - the simple fact is that dairy farmers and migrant workers need each other.

Of the more than 12,000 hired workers on Wisconsin's dairy farms, roughly 40% are immigrants, according to UW-Madison associate professor Jill Harrison, who has written several studies on migrant labor in the dairy industry. The reliance on hired immigrants increases with the size of the farm. The majority of immigrant workers - 88.5% - come from Mexico, while most of the rest come from Central and South America.

"If there was a crackdown [on these workers], the dairy industry would face difficult times," Harrison says. "Cows need to be milked a couple of times a day."

Getting an education

Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran is working on a tip he got from a teacher. In downtown Markesan, about 50 miles northeast of Madison, someone spotted a Latino family. The father works for a dairy farm.

He doesn't always have an address to go by and confesses the job "is sometimes like detective work," as he hunts down new Latino families all over the state. Zepeda-Capistran isn't with the police or immigration, but rather the Department of Public Instruction. His job is to make sure the children of immigrant families, who move so often, have access to schools.

"One of the major concerns I have is the impact that the frequency of the moves has on the progress of their education," Zepeda-Capistran says, adding that this becomes more apparent as the children get older. "Their reading levels are highly impacted. Also their math."

Today, in Markesan, he's got the family's address, in a rundown building, but it takes him a while to find the right apartment. He knocks a few times before a woman cautiously opens the door. In Spanish, Zepeda-Capistran explains he's here to see if her child - a young girl who has just started preschool - needs any help at school.

The woman looks a little nervous but lets him in, along with a reporter. All sit at the kitchen table, as Zepeda-Capistran asks the mother how long she's been here, where her husband works and where her daughter goes to school.

All the while the little girl, about 5, is wandering around the room. At one point she dislodges a glass from a cupboard; it falls and shatters. The girl starts crying but is comforted by her mother and Zepeda-Capistran, who gives her a hug.

Zepeda-Capistran focuses much of his time helping students who move into Wisconsin school districts in the middle of the year, often to leave again in the middle of the following year. Working with the school districts, he can help students get enrolled in the right classes, get tutoring or get signed up for summer school. The goal is to help them graduate. He doesn't ask whether or not they are here legally - that's not something the school system worries about. His concern is to make sure the kids are in school and getting an education.

After a while, Zepeda-Capistran starts asking the little girl some questions in English, to test her level. "Do you like to read?" Yes. "Do you like books?" No. "Do you go to the library?" Yes. "What do you do at the library?" The girl shrugs her shoulder. "Do you understand what I'm saying?" She nods yes, but it's unclear whether she really does.

Zepeda-Capistran leaves his card and gives the woman some brochures for a Madison College program that she and her husband could use to get a high school diploma. She asks him to translate a note from the school. It explains where families can take newspapers, cans and bottles for recycling.

Zepeda-Capistran could have offered other assistance, like making sure the girl was enrolled in the right classes at the right school, pairing her with DPI programs that offered instruction in English as a second language, or even tutoring. But these are available only to "migrant workers," and this family does not fit the definition. The woman's husband has worked at a dairy farm for too long.

"I could have helped them three years ago," Zepeda-Capistran explains later. "Families who work at a dairy farm and don't move after 12 months, I'm not supposed to help them anymore."

It's an agonizing position, because immigrant families who work at dairy farms face many of the same problems as migrant workers at other farms. But dairy workers typically don't qualify for school assistance.

Late spring and summer are busy times for Zepeda-Capistran, as more and more migrant families move into the area to work at farms and canneries. He'll spend most of the summer doing outreach to Latino families, especially at migrant camps.

Some families have grown to trust him and call when they need help, even after their children have graduated from high school. But others are suspicious, afraid. That's why Zepeda-Capistran rarely calls ahead to set up an appointment.

"If they know I'm coming, they won't be around," he says. "A lot of times when you go to their house, they won't open the door."

Under the radar

Jill Harrison knows that getting a handle on immigrant culture - who is living here, where they live, what they need, how they survive - is no easy matter.

"We have a hard time understanding these things because so many people are living under the radar," she says.

But in her research with several grad students at the UW-Madison, Harrison has been able to learn a great deal about immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin. The average age of immigrant dairy workers is 29.5. Most - 91.5% - are male. Sixty-three percent are married, and of those, 85.5% are living with their spouse in Wisconsin. Sixty-eight percent have children, most of whom live in the U.S. with their parents.

"We've met workers who have bought homes here, even without legal status, and have enrolled kids in school and are really establishing roots," Harrison says.

Despite the stereotype, many immigrants are educated, and others continue their education here.

Most are here for economic reasons. "I did not want to come here. I wanted to study, but there just isn't the money," a 23-year-old Mexican milker, who came to the U.S. when he was 17, told the researchers. "I didn't have anything in Mexico. We were very poor with my parents and eight brothers and sisters."

The young man told the researchers a story about his immigration decision: "The reason I came here is very funny. I was with a girl on her 15th birthday, and there it is the custom in Mexico to sell roses to couples, but I did not have the money to buy her a rose. And that's why I decided to come. There was no place to get that money. So I said to my brothers, 'You know what, I'm going.'"

Said a Nicaraguan man: "I was born in 1975, when the war started, in the farm land of Jinotega, half coffee, half cattle. In 1977, the army came and ate my father's 10 cows; in the war we lost everything. I remember the bombs when I was 5 years old.... My family had to go. We left for Honduras. We lived in a refugee camp.... In 1993, we came back [to Nicaragua] with nothing, no house, no animals. The jungle had grown over everything, and there were land mines. One of my uncles was killed by a land mine."

The researchers found that although many immigrants hope to one day return to their homeland, others would like to stay.

"Some workers really like their jobs," says Harrison. "The ones who emphasize this are ones who have an opportunity to move up. That's really only possible on large farms. These workers are willing to work for low pay at entry-level work for years and years."

Statistics on how many migrant workers are here illegally are hard to come by. According to Harrison's reports, the federal government estimates that 50% of immigrant agriculture workers in the U.S. are here without documentation.

It's generally impossible for farm workers to legally immigrate to the U.S. That opportunity is available only to those with advanced degrees and job offers. One Mexican told the researchers, "We tried to find the correct way to come. We asked how to get a permit, but it is not possible. They ask you to have a bank account and how old the account is, but we don't have any money, and that is why we come. Another prerequisite they ask for is that you own property. How could I have any property? I have nothing."

The one legal way for farm workers to come into the U.S. - with an H-2A temporary visa - is not available to dairy workers, because those workers are needed year-round.

Hating the word 'illegal'

In 2001, Shaun Duvall, a high school Spanish teacher in Alma, Wis., along the Mississippi, was approached by the local cooperative extension about helping farmers communicate with an influx of immigrant workers by giving Spanish lessons.

"I thought, 'Let's make it a little more valuable for them than that,'" she says. She founded Puentes/Bridges, a program to promote cultural understanding, and began organizing trips of farmers to Mexico.

Rosenow, the dairy farmer in Buffalo County, made one of those first trips. "I'm about as typical a farmer as you can get. I grew up on a farm," he says. "For me to travel to a developing country, I expected it to be a dumb thing to do." Instead, he says, "it changed my attitude about life a lot."

He's since returned several times, and his Spanish is getting better. He insists his Mexican workers only speak Spanish at work - and a couple of his other employees are also learning Spanish.

The trips to Mexico were eye-opening. Rosenow came to understand his employees' culture and what their lives were like. "I understand now why I give instructions to do something and the employee will say 'yes' and then go do something else," he says. "Once I understood how we were stereotyped by them, I realized it was the safest thing to do."

That's the sort of thing Duvall was hoping would happen. She works with about 50 farms around Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana. And she says the farmers she encounters often "become these guys' greatest advocates."

She's heard stories about some farmers abusing workers, but says that "absolutely doesn't happen" among the farms she works with.

Rosenow sees helping his workers as part of being a good employer. "If you're going to be a good employer, you need to understand the wants and needs of your employees," he explains. "I want to be a good employer, so I want to know that stuff."

And he's become passionate about immigrant rights. "I hate the words 'illegal alien,'" he says. "To me, it's like the N-word." He notes that he frequently exceeds the speed limit when driving, but that doesn't make him illegal. "I'm a citizen who did something illegal."

Still, he worries what might happen if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers someday show up. "I worry about that more than anything else. We have nothing if we don't have employees," Rosenow says. "Our employees are our most valuable asset."

Building momentum

A few years ago, Rosenow talked to his partners about whether to be upfront about hiring immigrant labor "or just sit in the shadows."

"Our understanding of this country is some people have to take a stand and force change," he says. "And we owe it to our employees, who made us what we are. I think we're building some momentum."

Since then, he's been featured in a number of media reports on the issue. Immigration officers have yet to come knocking.

As Rosenow sees it, a widespread crackdown on immigrant labor would devastate farms but ultimately prove fruitless. "The notion of rounding up 10 million people and shipping them back home is absurd," he says. "They'd never find them all. The economy would tank. And you've got to have due process, so it would clog up the system."

According to Harrison's research, there haven't been any raids of dairy farms in Wisconsin, though they have occurred in other states. Still, the immigrants her team interviewed (with guarantees that their names and locations would not be revealed) live in constant fear of being caught.

"Some people don't leave their house except to go to work or go to the grocery store twice a month," she says. "They don't complain when they're paid late or report abuse."

Harrison notes that although Americans are becoming increasingly conscious about the foods they eat and how they're prepared, they don't show as much concern for the conditions of the workers who prepare those foods. Which is ironic, because the farmer has long been an American archetype people love to rally around.

"There's tremendous compassion for the plight of farmers," she says, "but the labor is overlooked."

'You should be in Mexico!'

Between 2006 and 2008, a small team led by Jill Harrison, an associate professor of rural sociology at the UW-Madison, looked into the role of immigrants on Wisconsin dairy farms. They conducted seven focus groups, surveyed 83 dairy farmers and hundreds of their employees, and conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen immigrant workers.

This led to a series of reports, available here, published last year. One of Harrison's most depressing papers focuses on how immigrants are treated in Wisconsin.

Most of the 267 immigrants surveyed by the researchers say they do make some effort to socialize and interact. But some, including those in an agricultural exchange program who are here legally, encounter a mix of hostility, curiosity, ignorance and stereotyping.

One family with three boys from Guanajuato, Mexico, found a chilly reception early on. The mother cried while the father related this experience: The townspeople "looked at [us] in a very ugly way. There were times when we were walking to the store, and there were children walking toward us on the same sidewalk, and they'd cross the street. They must have been afraid. I don't know."

But life has gotten better for the family. "Many people talk to us; they are nice to us," the man says. "When the people see that you behave well and that we just come only to work and to be a part of the community, they lose their fear."

Others report hostility in the workplace and at school. One reported that his boss regularly called his Mexican workers "fucking Mexicans," even though they helped make his business a success. And a "little old lady" who hit his parked car in a parking lot yelled at him, "You should be in Mexico. We don't need no fucking Mexicans around here."

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