By Luca Fagundes
The debate about immigration in America has been centered on a border wall ever since Donald Trump made it an issue in his presidential campaign. The reality is that the debate is about something far more important.
In Wisconsin, it’s about food, and more specifically, dairy.
The Wisconsin dairy industry relies heavily on undocumented labor to complete some of the most difficult and dangerous work on our farms. Off the record, many dairy farmers will admit that without undocumented workers, their farms would close.
A 2015 study from Texas A&M University estimated that half of all dairy workers in the United States are immigrants of Hispanic origin.
I recently interviewed an ex-employee of one of Wisconsin’s largest and most productive dairy farms, who estimates the number is much higher in Wisconsin. The worker, who I’ll call Santiago, though that’s not his real name, worked in human resources for the farm, where his father still works. Santiago speaks English and Spanish fluently, and helped all new employees fill out their employment forms and I-9s.
He said 90 percent of the work on the farm is done by undocumented labor. In fact, he said the farm has built duplexes on the property because they know the workers don’t have the documentation to get their own apartments.
Santiago performs similar HR work for another farm where he could think of just two that had legal status with proper documents. “The rest were using someone else’s or just one that they made up,” he said.
“The majority of people with legal statuses are not going to work at some shitty farm and the ones that are, are blue collar people who work at a shop, people at the office, or some high school dropout who has a criminal record and can’t get a job anywhere else,” he said.
The estimated number of undocumented people in the United States ranges from 11 million to 18 million, depending on the source. The Pew Research Center puts the number at 11.4 million, a number that has held steady for eight straight years. Finding correct figures pertaining to the agriculture or dairy industries is difficult, because dairy farmers don’t want to answer questions about undocumented workers.
Dairy farms, and the ag industry in general, does not have to abide by federal employment standards and practices required in other industries, such as E-Verify, a federal online system to verify that people are authorized to work in the United States.
Congress won’t say it, but they know the catastrophic impact that enforcing strict federal hiring practices would have on the agriculture industry, which contributes an estimated $992 billion to the U.S. economy.
Wisconsin’s dairy industry contributed $43.4 billion dollars to our state economy in 2015. Dairy cattle need to be milked multiple times per day or they die. Without the work of undocumented immigrants, the industry would cease to exist.
It’s workers like a client of mine I’ll call Roberto, who make up what the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism called “the backbone of dairies.”
Roberto never thought it would just be him and his boys. He didn’t know how to cook for himself, and the boys had always been much closer to his wife, Maria, growing up.
They wanted to move closer to Maria’s sister in Valders, but needed to save some extra money to do so. So Roberto asked his farm’s manager if they could use another pusher. The farm had been short-staffed for years, and would hire anyone with a heartbeat willing to work in the milking parlor – a hot, smelly, wet job.
Maria took a job in the parlor making $9 an hour , not a bad starting wage given she had only completed the sixth grade. Roberto was making $11.50 an hour, and with Maria’s contribution the couple was finally able to squirrel some extra funds away for the move.
Three weeks into her job, Maria received a kick to the head while pushing a 1,500-pound Holstein into its stall. She died instantly.
Distraught, Roberto was not able to tell her family in Mexico that she died until after the funeral, when he came to terms with his new reality. The farm paid for funeral expenses, and the kids would receive a nominal monthly workman’s comp disbursement from the state. Soon after, he moved the family to the new job in Valders, allowing Roberto to stop thinking constantly about Maria.
Roberto was happy at the new farm. The kids were happy to be near their cousins, and Maria’s sister stepped in and was helping Roberto at home. This was not the way his family’s journey was supposed to go, but it’s the life he was willing to lead to survive.
In my role as an immigration attorney, Roberto’s story stands out, but there is a common theme here. Behind every Roberto, there are 30 more. Workers desperate to make a better life through hard work. At its core, the human condition wants to survive at any cost. And that’s what keeps Roberto going, pushing cattle into stalls, shoveling feces, doing the dirty work of the dairy industry. According to farmers, that work ethic is difficult to find in America today.
In the article, “Undocumented Workers Are The Backbone of Dairies. Will Trump Change That?,” published by the Huffington Post, one Wisconsin dairy farmer put it bluntly: “Even if an American guy came up right now, I don’t know if I’d hire him,” he said. “I’d rather have a Latino.”
The immense positive impact that undocumented labor has on Wisconsin’s economy cannot be ignored. Dairy farmers know this. As the immigration debate heats up, so should you.
Luca Fagundes is an attorney specializing in immigration law in northeast Wisconsin. Attorney Fagundes has represented clients in U.S. Federal District Courts and Federal Immigration Courts in Chicago, Minneapolis and Cleveland. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.