While Wisconsin’s immigration politics remain stalled, undocumented immigrants drive without licenses

December 17, 2009

By Andy Szal and Jacob Kushner

Victoria, an undocumented immigrant, works at a dairy farm east of La Crosse -- and gets there by driving, although she lacks a license. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

Drivers beware: There’s a woman driving a stretch of Interstate 90 between Sparta and Tomah — without a license or any training about Wisconsin’s traffic laws.

Her name is Victoria. She’s a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who works on a Tomah dairy farm with other undocumented immigrants whom she says “all understand our boss through signals” because of language barriers.

Victoria, who arrived in Wisconsin 13 months ago, hasn’t taken any drivers’ training in the United States because Wisconsin law prohibits her from obtaining a license. She says she hasn’t had any run-ins with police, but requested that her last name be withheld out of fear she might be pursued as an illegal immigrant.

She is among a growing number of illegal immigrants who are finding work on Wisconsin dairy farms, located in rural areas where the only way to get to work is by car.

Immigrants now account for about 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from just 5 percent a decade ago, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.

These 5,000 immigrants have become a critical part of the state’s signature industry at the same time that some are calling for a greater crackdown on undocumented immigrants. While there are no estimates on how many of Wisconsin’s immigrant dairy workers are here illegally, federal surveys have estimated that half of all immigrant crop workers nationwide lack immigration papers.

The debate over undocumented immigrants spilled into the state budget this summer as lawmakers debated a proposal that would have allowed them to get licensed.

The measure, backed by some dairy farmers and law-enforcement officers, would have reversed part of a 2005 state law passed to comply with the federal Real ID Act, which required applicants for a driver’s license to submit proof of citizenship or legal resident status.

Opponents argue Wisconsin shouldn’t be in the business of ignoring state and federal immigration laws, regardless of the limitations on state agriculture and driving enforcement.

Rep. Robin Vos, Rep. Caledonia

“There’s a tendency to sometimes accept the fact that we have people here breaking the law,” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia.

Still, the measure’s failure came as a blow to immigrant advocacy groups, which have long petitioned for the right of undocumented immigrants to drive legally in the state.

“It shows that neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party in Wisconsin or nationally have the intention to fix the problems that are most urgent to our people,” said Alex Gillis, co-founder of the Madison immigration rights group Immigrant Workers’ Union.

No one knows how many undocumented immigrants are driving without licenses in Wisconsin. But state Department of Transportation data show that after the law requiring applicants to submit proof of legal residence took effect in 2007, the number of people taking the Spanish-language version of the road skills knowledge test plummeted 91 percent — from 42,500 in 2006 to fewer than 4,000 in 2008. The number of applicants taking the English version of the test also declined during the period, but by just 23 percent.

Patrick Fernan, the agency’s operations manager, acknowledged the possibility that the decrease represents a drop in the number of undocumented Hispanic immigrants applying for licenses, but cautioned it’s impossible to say for sure.

Driving a necessity for many immigrant agricultural workers

According to a 2008 study by Paul Dyk, a livestock agent at University of Wisconsin-Extension in Fond du Lac County, 78 percent of Hispanic workers at Eastern Wisconsin dairy farms arrive at work in their own car, but only 44 percent of Hispanic dairy workers have a driver’s license.

Mario Garcia, youth coordinator at the Madison-based nonprofit agency Centro Hispano, says driving legally in Wisconsin has become impossible for many of the state’s agricultural immigrant workers since the federal government passed the Real ID Act. The 2005 federal law was crafted to shore up the security of the state driver’s licenses, although deadlines for compliance have been pushed back amid complaints from states about its requirements and costs.

Garcia said the inability of immigrant workers to drive legally makes Wisconsin roads dangerous for all.

That was one reason a number of law enforcement officials came out in support of the license provision this summer during the budget debate. Police chiefs in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Appleton and Beloit each backed the provision, along with support from chiefs of smaller departments such as Whitewater, Shorewood and Dorchester. The Wisconsin State Troopers Association was also on board.

“Regardless (of whether) these cards are issued or not, undocumented individuals are going to be driving motor vehicles throughout the state,” Whitewater Police Chief James Coan said this summer. “Our traffic safety efforts will be enhanced by providing them with an opportunity to obtain a limited driver’s license.”

Tom Hochstatter, a Milwaukee attorney who practices immigration law, says giving immigrants driver’s licenses would increase safety and reduce the burden on law-enforcement officials to act as de facto immigration enforcement agents.

The potential downside is just that if you’re showing a law enforcement officer your document, then they know that it’s really a second-class driver’s license,” Hochstatter said. “If you have an agenda about immigration, you could end up pursuing your questioning … to a point where you find they are undocumented.”

The budget proposal would have required the limited-use licenses to appear “distinctive” from standard driver’s licenses and would also have required language on the new licenses to stipulate they could be used for driving only. Cardholders could not have used their cards for other identification verification purposes, such as cashing a check or boarding a commercial flight.

The measure also would have stipulated that law enforcement may not press cardholders on their immigration status if the limited-use license was presented for its intended purpose.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office indicated he would be opposed to the bill’s provision on checking immigration status “to the extent these proposals limit the ability of law enforcement to work together at the federal, state and local levels.”

Debate in the state budget

Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee

The governor did not include the provision on driver’s licenses in the original budget for the 2009-11 biennium that he proposed in February. But state Rep. Pedro Colón of Milwaukee persuaded fellow Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee to add the measure during its deliberations on the budget.

The Assembly then approved the measure in its version of the budget.

Under Colón’s proposal, drivers unable to prove their legal residence could obtain a limited license provided that some key conditions were met, including establishing Wisconsin residency, providing proof of identity, being ineligible for a Social Security number and passing all relevant driving tests.

Colón said undocumented immigrants “were just in a panic. … They couldn’t go to work, they couldn’t go to the store,” and the issue was critical to his constituents.

At a December meeting of the Dairy Business Association, a group of large dairy farm owners, Colón told farm owners that the right to a driver’s license represents “the most basic of what we call the American dream, this basic attainment of what we call happiness.”

“Happiness to people in my district,” he said in a Madison speech, “is going to take grandma to the doctor and not being stopped by a police officer for four hours while they determine your identity because there is no way for you to get a driver’s license.”

Vos, a fellow member of the Joint Finance Committee, introduced a motion to eliminate the license provision during debate over the Department of Transportation budget.

“The entire idea … flies in the face of what common sense should be,” Vos said of the proposal, arguing that both dairy farm employers and potentially undocumented employees should be facing stiff state and federal penalties rather than being allotted a loophole in the state’s driving laws.

This undocumented immigrant, who works at a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin, isn’t able to obtain a driver’s license. He was cited for that infraction in September after another driver backed into his parked vehicle at in a grocery-store parking lot. The worker and his family were profiled Nov. 11 in the Dairyland Diversity journalism project. ( http://wisconsinwatch.org/?p=2105 ) WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

With Democrats in the majority in both houses, Republican opposition wasn’t enough to derail Colón’s proposal. Once the budget moved onto the Senate, however, some Democrats expressed concern about the measure, citing their constituents’ opposition.

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, told a constituent in an e-mail that he was “able to convince” his caucus to drop the driver’s license provision. He represents a sizable Latino population and became the subject of intense scrutiny from the immigration advocacy group Voces de la Frontera.

But Carpenter was not swayed by the effort from law enforcement, labor groups and religious organizations, noting this summer that 90 percent of his constituents who had contacted his office were opposed to the measure.

Carpenter was also unhappy the provision was stuck into the budget during late-night deliberations and without a public hearing.

“I wasn’t the only one who had concerns,” Carpenter said of his discussions with fellow Democrats in the state Senate.

Colón said federal legislation left room for states to address the problem of undocumented drivers in the Real ID Act, and his staff analyzed two states that have implemented similar laws — Utah and Tennessee.

Tennessee, however, suspended its two-tier license program after the state found undocumented immigrants from neighboring states were attempting to acquire the licenses. Before the suspension of the program, the National Immigration Law Center estimated that Tennessee issued some 51,000 driving certificates to citizens who could not authenticate their legal status.

Vos said that while the public generally is not comfortable condoning what is seen as illegal activity, the economic issues surrounding the state and the country could also color voters’ views on immigration issues.

If the unemployment rate stays at current levels heading into the 2010 election season, Vos asked, “Will they be angry that you’re giving benefits to people here illegally?”

State fix likely to depend on Washington

Lawmakers on both sides of the driver’s license issue are united in one aspect: The Wisconsin Legislature shouldn’t be in the position of dictating immigration policy.

For now, Colón says he has no plans to reintroduce the plan as a stand-alone bill. In addition to the already difficult path it faces in the Legislature, Colón believes federal lawmakers are ready to make the state’s job easier by reforming how the nation deals with illegal immigrants.

“As a legislator in Wisconsin, I don’t want to be messing in immigration law,” Colón said, adding that federal lawmakers forced his hand with the mandates in the Real ID Act.

Vos acknowledged that he doesn’t have a say in the ultimate answer on immigration because, “I’m not in Congress.”

Andy Szal is a reporter for WisPolitics.com. Jacob Kushner is a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The two organizations collaborated on this report for Dairyland Diversity, an ongoing project with The Country Today newspaper examining how immigration is reshaping Wisconsin’s dairy industry.


A delicate existence: Undocumented and living on a Wisconsin dairy farm

November 11, 2009


José is one of an estimated 5,000 immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

Immigrants cope with isolation, grueling hours.

But there’s room for family life, too.

By Jacob Kushner
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Yawning, the man pulls on his grimy work pants, then boots, then sweatshirt, releasing smells of animal waste and hay into the air.  The October morning is cold enough he’d see his breath if the farm wasn’t consumed by darkness, the moon hidden behind heavy clouds.

The woman calls out in broken English as she walks up and down the aisles of the barn: “Come on, let’s go. Come on, come on.” The cows glare at her before, one by one, they begin their familiar stroll toward the milking parlor.

The daily routine is not unlike the one experienced by generations of Wisconsin farm families. But unlike those farmers, this young Mexican couple, José and Victoria, said goodbye to their families and traveled 1,720 miles to work long hours on a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin among people who do not speak their language and in a place where their presence is illegal.

José says most Americans don’t like immigrants. “They think that we are here invading their territory. But we aren’t left with any other option because the situation in Mexico is very, very difficult.”

Despite the ever-present threat of deportation, José and his wife have a sort of job security they never found in Mexico: Their employment is all but ensured by the need for cheap labor at larger dairy farms that are increasingly common across Wisconsin’s rolling pasture lands.

The couple’s story is representative of roughly 5,000 immigrants who have become the labor backbone of Wisconsin’s signature industry. Immigrants now account for about 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from just 5 percent 10 years earlier, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. While that study didn’t explore immigration status, earlier federal surveys have estimated half of all immigrant crop workers nationwide are working illegally.

José and Victoria requested their real names be withheld out of fear they might be identified by law enforcement and pursued as illegal immigrants. Though interviewed in Spanish, José and Victoria have learned enough English to understand directions on the farm and to function daily in Western Wisconsin while raising two bilingual children.

The work

To say José and Victoria work from sunrise to sunset would be inaccurate – their day starts in darkness before the sun rises, and ends in darkness, well after the final rays have been blocked by the hills to the west.



José drives his pickup truck to and from work, even though he’s ineligible to obtain a driver’s license. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

With empty stomachs, save for a large mug of fresh milk from the cows, mixed with instant coffee and honey, Victoria and José climb into their pickup truck and drive the five-minute stretch of highway to the dairy farm.

While Victoria begins herding the cows into the milking parlor, José prepares the milking equipment.

The work is not altogether unskilled. In addition to directing animals using shouts, whistles and movements, immigrants also learn tasks such as operating farm machinery and monitoring the milk pumping system.

“Sometimes I come tired and there’s something I forget to do,” says José, recalling one morning a few months ago when milk began spewing on the floor from an overhead pipe because he forgot to correctly prepare the pump. “There’s a lot to remember.”

Once the cows walk into the parlor, José sanitizes their teats before attaching suction cups. The mooing crescendos as remaining cows grow impatient. Ten at a time, the cows are milked and led back to the barn.

By the time the cows return, Victoria has cleaned the barn and filled the stalls with feed. When finished, Victoria comes to the parlor to help her husband finish milking.

The couple talks sparingly as they focus on work, an old radio crackling out Mexican Maríachi and ranchera songs to the background noise of industrial-sized fans. By the time the sun rises, the work has become mechanical, routine.

Ask Victoria if it’s boring, and she laughs: “I don’t have time to be bored.”

Four hours after the morning milking began, the last cows head back to the barn, and José and Victoria clean the parlor.

At 11, the couple returns home to cook lunch – already six hours into the workday. Victoria, who works about 40 hours a week, usually spends the rest of the day doing chores or running errands. José averages 70 hours a week.

A couple of days a week, José will not return to work until it is time for the second milking from 5 to 9 p.m. José calls those his “easy days.” But on full days he works the entire afternoon, harvesting and transporting crops from the fields or feeding milk to calves out of oversized baby bottles.

“On a farm there is little rest,” José says. “It’s nothing but work and more work.”


Each autumn, José harvests the green peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, corn, onions, potatoes and cilantro he grows in his garden outside their house. “Just think how much we save by not buying vegetables for three months,” he says. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

For their labor, José earns $11 per hour and Victoria earns $8 per hour, and their combined take-home pay is about $1,900 every two weeks. Little remains after their employer deducts taxes (including Social Security, which they are ineligible to receive) and they cover their rent, truck payments, gas, utilities and groceries — plus the $200 per month they send to help support families back home in Mexico.

The family life

The work at the farm finally over, José and Victoria return to their modest but comfortable home, an old  two-bedroom farmhouse they rent from their boss for $330 a month. Awaiting them are their 13-year-old daughter María and 8-year-old son Antonio. The children have already finished their homework for the following day (there’s no TV until it’s all done).

It’s dinner time. Antonio and María run around the large kitchen, excited as mom prepares their favorite dish: Italian spaghetti, pasta cooked in a rich tomato-cream sauce with a Mexican twist (corn and jalapeños). The meal is indicative of the family’s lifestyle, a mix of Mexican traditions and rural Wisconsin comfort.

The children speak fluent Spanish and English, and their conversations switch almost randomly between the two. They always speak Spanish to their parents, who understand English well but are still uncomfortable speaking it.

After dinner, the children watch impatiently as dad navigates the Dish Latino channels. They want to watch “The Hulk,” but he prefers a Spanish-language soap opera. At a suspenseful moment in the show, José and the children watch with worried looks on their faces. Meanwhile, Victoria is curled up in a blanket, lying on the sofa – exhausted from the day’s work.

It’s a home life not unlike that of other families in rural Wisconsin. But the difference is, their home life is almost all they’ve got.

The family doesn’t usually go out to dinner, movies or bowling like other local families.


Anticipating a twice-monthly treat, immigrant dairy worker José and his children await their takeout order at a Domino's Pizza. The family's discomfort among locals keeps them from venturing far from the farm where they work and live. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

Twice a month, when they get their paycheck, they drive into town for a Domino’s pizza – Hawaiian with jalapeños. But as soon as it’s ready, they jump back in their pickup truck and drive out of town to eat their meal back at home.

Sometimes they all drive into town to go shopping, but out of hesitation to communicate with store employees, their trip differs from that of most families. “Sometimes we eat out together, or go to the mall – only to look, nothing else,” José says.

It is less a fear of leaving the house than a sense of discomfort among a population that does not speak their language and, according to José, sees them as outsiders.

Coming to America

José, Victoria, María and Antonio each hold distinct memories of their life in Mozomboa, Mexico, their hometown of 3,000 located near the Gulf of Mexico, 175 miles east of Mexico City. While José took whatever daily jobs he could find on a local farm, the children sold snacks and water to locals as street vendors.

They all agree the hardest part was when José and eventually Victoria went to work in the United States, leaving their children behind.

“We couldn’t see them growing,” says Victoria, who tears up as she recalls leaving to create a new life for her children in America. After two years of separation, she returned to Mexico in 2007 to bring her children across the border.

José and Victoria don’t like talking about their journey into America – that episode in their life is over. But the kids can’t keep from recounting the story, and the memory of the blisters on their feet walking north through the desert with their mother.

Ask José why he came here, and he will say he wanted a job with a wage that could support his family. He entered the U.S. legally with a work visa, but decided not to return after it expired.

Ask him why he stayed, and the undocumented Mexican sounds more like a patriot than an alien.

“I love this country because there are many opportunities, many jobs — not like in Mexico,” José says. “And it’s more beautiful. Wherever one goes, one sees beautiful pastures.”


A traditional Mexican Sunday brunch is one reminder of the family's life before they moved to Wisconsin. A UW-Madison study estimates that 90 percent of the immigrant dairy workers are from Mexico. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

But opportunity is not the same as security. That’s because a couple of state-issued photo IDs and Social Security numbers they purchased illegally for $400 each is all the documentation they have. Neither can get a driver’s license. Neither can get subsidized public health insurance in Wisconsin.

The cost of medical treatment is a problem José and Victoria know all too well: Three months ago, Victoria was rushed to a hospital for appendicitis. A $20,000 hospital bill on their kitchen table is a reminder of the challenge of being without insurance.

As María listens to her mom retell the story of the late-night hospital trip, a worried look creeps across her face. She knows her parents don’t have the money to pay the bill, and she’s scared about her future.

But, in her usual manner of making a lesson out of their challenges, Victoria turns to María, wipes away her own tears, and smiles: “If I were dead, how could I pay the bill then? Life is more important.”

A future through their children

José and Victoria seldom miss an opportunity to encourage their children to become educated and create a better future for themselves.

“Nothing is difficult, and nothing is impossible,” José says to María, telling her that not money, but dedication is the only real obstacle to overcome toward receiving a university education. He hopes the meager savings he hides away after each paycheck prove him right.

María is sometimes discouraged. At middle school, she sits alone at lunch because other children tease her and call her ugly. They hurl their insults just out of the earshot of the teacher, whom María says is oblivious to it all.

“Americans don’t like me,” she says. “It’s really hard to make a best friend.”

José and Victoria treat their kids like adults — they talk in goofy, ‘kid’ voices to the dog and cats around the farmhouse, but never to their children. They tell jokes and stories, challenging Antonio and María with trivia and word tricks.

“What weighs more, a kilo of cotton or a kilo of stone?” Victoria asks.

“Stone,” Antonio responds. “Cotton,” María says.


José strums a guitar as the family sings along to their favorite Mexican artists. They spend their evenings together in the living room, also watching television and playing games. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

With such a close family life, it is easy to forget José and Victoria spend almost as many hours working as they do otherwise. They spend long hours milking cows not because they enjoy it, but because because it’s their way of creating a better future for their children.

Ask José what his aspirations are, and the undocumented foreigner from Mexico describes a vision with a distinctly familiar tune. He hopes, against the odds, he and his family can become legal citizens. Some might recognize it as the American Dream.

“That my children continue with school and learn English well. That they become somebody in life, that they be important people here in the United States. Imagine, [Barack] Obama is an African American and he is president of the United States. It would be best for my children if next a [Latino/a] could be president, or secretary of state. One cannot lose hope.”

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Dairyland Diversity, a special report on Wisconsin’s growing reliance upon immigrant dairy workers. The stories are a joint project of several media organizations, including The Country Today, a weekly newspaper focusing upon agricultural and rural issues, and the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

To see earlier Dairyland Diversity coverage, click here.

Immigrants now 40 percent of dairy workforce in Wisconsin

November 4, 2009

Dairy farmers face challenges hiring immigrant workers


Dairy farmer John Rosenow says immigrant workers are "so much more capable than what we could find before" with local workers. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

By Jacob Kushner
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Like many Wisconsin dairy farmers, Tim Servais needed help and he reluctantly faced the facts.

After he expanded his farm operation outside La Crosse in 1995, Servais relied on local adults, teenagers and farm kids to do what work he couldn’t handle himself.

“I’ve always tried to hire people who were local so I had some background on them,” Servais said.

About three years back, Servais found the locals had stopped coming to his barn door. “I just couldn’t find people to do the work,” Servais said.

But he found Spanish-speaking foreigners eager to take their place. “I tried not to go that way because I didn’t know how it was going to work out,” he recalled.

Now immigrants do much of the field work and almost all of the milking for his 240-cow dairy herd.

“It worked out really well,” Servais said.

Servais is one of a growing number of Wisconsin dairy farmers relying on immigrants to milk their cows and keep their farms running smoothly.

Just 10 years ago, 5 percent of workers on Wisconsin dairy farms were immigrants — but by 2008, that number jumped to 40 percent, or more than 5,000 workers, according to a 2009 study by the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. Those immigrants are changing the face of the state’s signature industry, while bringing increasing diversity and social challenges to the state’s rural areas.

As Wisconsin dairy farmers hire more immigrants, they face mounting pressure to ensure their workforce is competent, skilled, and above all, legal. Experts say farmers are often caught in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” web of federal employment regulations, with a strong incentive to know as little as possible about the legal status of their workers. The UW-Madison study didn’t inquire about immigration status of dairy workers, but earlier federal surveys have estimated that half of immigrant crop workers are working in the United States illegally.

    An immigrant worker milks cows in the parlor at John Rosenow's dairy farm in Buffalo County. Rosenow employs eight Mexican immigrants. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

An immigrant worker milks cows in the parlor at John Rosenow's dairy farm in Buffalo County. Rosenow employs eight Mexican immigrants. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

Goodbye farm kids, hello immigrants

Servais remembers a time when the children of dairy farmers used to work on the farm, learning the ropes with the goal of one day inheriting it as their own.

Those days are disappearing for many families. Servais said farmers today simply have fewer children, and the remaining children don’t always share the traditional vision of taking on the family business.

It’s not hard to understand why children are choosing to go to college or pursue other industries over farm work.

“It’s labor intense,” Servais said. “When you’re (on) a dairy farm you’re on call 24-seven, 365, no matter if you’re on vacation or you’re down at the local store or what.”

Unsure of the aspirations of his own three children and in need of more workers after expanding his farm a few years back, Servais turned to local high school students, but found them generally unreliable in a business that requires timely and skillful milking at unusual hours.

“There are all kinds of people that want to come around and work, but it’s to their convenience,” Servais said. “It’d be Friday evening and they call at 5 o’clock and they’re supposed to be there at 5 o’clock – ‘I’m not going to make it tonight, something came up.’ Well you know what came up, something more fun than working.”

Servais said local teenagers come by his farm wanting work for the summer, but after spending a day in the parlor and seeing how messy and physically grueling the work is, most soon quit.

In need of a workforce he could depend on and afford, Servais turned to immigrants, and he now employs three of them.

“They don’t get paid a lot now, but that’s one thing I’m working on is paying them more because I really appreciate the fact that they’re helping me out, and they’re very good,” Servais said.

Servais is just one of many dairy farm owners increasingly relying on immigrants to keep operations running smoothly.

“We need them to milk cows or we’d barely be in business,” Loren Wolfe, co-owner of a 575-cow dairy farm near Cochrane, said of the Hispanic immigrants he employs.

The need for immigrant workers is exacerbated by low milk prices, as farmers depend upon cheap labor to remain profitable. Wolfe’s business partner, John Rosenow, estimated the pair would have to pay native workers twice the rate his Hispanic immigrants are willing to work for – $7.25 an hour, according to one of their immigrant employees.

Rosenow, who employs eight Hispanic workers, said even if he could find local workers who were dedicated to farm life, the increased salary costs would bankrupt his business.

Plus, Rosenow said, farmers hire immigrants because they are “excellent,” hard workers. In fact, they are “so much more capable than what we could find before” with local workers.

The hiring process

While locals are hard to find, immigrant applicants are numerous.

Sandi Zirbel, co-owner of a 635-cow dairy cooperative outside of Green Bay, said the influx of immigrants is evident in her company’s staff.

Zirbel said immigrants frequently come looking for work, and as many as 19 out of 20 applicants are immigrants. Two-thirds of those applications get tossed.

“Some of them simply just don’t fit into the system, either because of how much they’re asking per hour or what their experience is,” Zirbel said. All workers start at $7.50 per hour — but usually receive a raise to $8.50 after six months and are eligible for yearly raises thereafter.
Despite the number of applicants who are rejected, it’s easy to find enough qualified workers to fill the need at Zirbel Dairy Farms: Seven of the current nine farmhands are immigrants.

“They’re more likely to seek this type of work,” Zirbel said. “Why somebody would want to leave Mexico and come to Wisconsin to milk in the middle of winter, I don’t know … but there’s a lot of them up here.”


Tim Servais used to employ locals to milk cows on his mid-sized dairy farm in Vernon County near Stoddard. Now he hires immigrants to fill the spots, because locals no longer come around looking for work. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

The rules

Although dairy farm owners go through the same legal hiring process as all employers, many say the process is complicated by the assumption many Hispanics are undocumented, meaning they don’t have the proper work visas or have come to the United States illegally.

“In my opinion there is a high percentage of undocumented labor that is being used in dairy farms,” said Erich Straub, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in deportation defense. Straub said because of contradictory immigration laws, it is in the best interest of farmers not to know if their workers are illegal.

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. I don’t think they want to know,” Straub said. “I think they’re in a very difficult position where they have a need for labor, they have a declining labor pool in their community … it’s a very challenging environment for farmers to run a business.”

While most farmers will tell you they follow the rules, Straub said the larger problem is employment law is vague enough to allow some undocumented workers to slip through the cracks.

Employers must require all job applicants to fill out a federal I-9 employment eligibility form and show multiple forms of identification to prove they are authorized to work. Employers send the applicant’s Social Security number to the Social Security Administration for tax purposes. Unless they receive a “no-match” letter stating the Social Security number does not match a known worker, applicants are cleared for employment.

Undocumented immigrants often evade the issue by guessing at a valid number, or by paying someone to provide them with a Social Security number of an eligible worker, immigrants and experts said.

Employers must examine a worker’s identification documents and make a good faith decision as to their validity. The confusion arises with the notion of “constructive knowledge,” which states that employers who have an indication an employee may not be eligible must take further steps to ensure their eligibility or terminate the employee. This constructive knowledge could arise from a document that looks false, a “no-match” letter, or even overhearing the worker say a visa expired.

But Tom Hochstatter, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in immigration law, said the constructive knowledge provision creates unique problems for dairy farmers.

“Dairy farmers,” he said, “are freaked out because their situation is such that, while they might not know that any particular person is legal or illegal, they know statistically that if they have 15 dairy workers … statistically the chances are that some don’t have genuine documents. There’s this fear.”

Rosenow, the Cochrane farmer, said the constructive knowledge provision gives farmers an incentive to know as little about the legal status of their workers as possible.

“If a reasonable person could look at the documents and would make the assumption that they’re legit, then you accept them,” Rosenow said.


A sign on the office door at John Rosenow's Cochrane Dairy farm reads "Don't enter with boots" in Spanish. WCIJ/ROBERT GUTSCHE JR.

E-Verify and the future of hiring

While dairy farmers admit it is possible undocumented workers slip through, they maintain they do everything within their power to ensure their own employees are documented. Not everyone is so sure.

For example, Zirbel’s cooperative outside Green Bay is one of only three Wisconsin dairy farms registered with E-Verify, a voluntary federal Web-based system allowing employers to instantaneously validate Social Security numbers of job applicants. Farmers acknowledge that applicants whose numbers don’t match often leave without providing another.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is sponsoring a bill to require employers to use E-Verify before hiring.

But many say E-Verify is inconvenient, unreliable and will only make hiring workers more difficult. “I don’t see the downside of the system we’re using now,” Rosenow said.

“I know that there are accuracy problems with the database,” Straub said. “Sometimes those problems are exaggerated by some people who don’t want E-Verify. On the other side of the coin, I think E-Verify is promoted as some magic bullet that’s going to fix the immigration problem in the United States. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

While she’s one of the few using E-Verify, Zirbel disagreed with the assumption farmers are trying to manipulate the hiring process to benefit from cheap and illegal labor.

“I would like to assure anybody who doesn’t know anything about dairy farming that we’re doing everything possible to legally hire (immigrant workers),” Zirbel said.

“It’s peace of mind,” Zirbel continued. “We do our job to make sure we have all the right documentation. Whether or not they give us the right information, that’s really out of our hands.”

Coming Nov. 11: A delicate existence: A look into the life an undocumented Mexican family, working and living on a Wisconsin dairy farm.

Editor’s note: This special report on Wisconsin’s growing reliance upon immigrant dairy workers is a joint project of several media organizations, including The Country Today, a weekly newspaper focusing upon agricultural and rural issues, and the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

At a glance:

Wisconsin’s immigrant workforce

  • In 2008, immigrants represented 40 percent of the estimated 12,551 hired workers on Wisconsin dairy farms. Of the immigrants, 89 percent are from Mexico.
  • In total, Wisconsin is home to an estimated 85,000 undocumented immigrants.  Federal estimates have said that 50 percent of immigrant agricultural crop workers nationwide are not authorized to work in the United States.
  • Immigrant laborers on dairy farms worked an average of 57 hours per week and took off about 4.8 days per month.
  • 91 percent of dairy workers surveyed said they want to advance and learn new skills like animal health care or machinery operation.
  • 68 percent of dairy workers surveyed have children. Of those, 74 percent live with their children in the United States, and 83 percent of these children attend school.
  • 80 percent of dairy workers surveyed said they felt accepted as part of their community here.
  • Some Mexican-born persons seeking permanent resident status may wait up to 18 years for their cases to be approved.

Sources: UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, based in part on survey of 267 immigrant workers on Wisconsin dairy farms; U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey; Pew Hispanic Center, U.S. Department of State.

Rural immigration summit focuses upon ‘invisible community’

November 3, 2009

"My goal has been to teach the (immigrant) children there's something better for them to do than what their parents are being forced to do because of the economy," Iowa County resident and bilingual volunteer Martha Boyer, left, told attendees at a Rural Immigration Summit sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Dodgeville School District English language teacher Michelle Meier, Darlington police Sgt. Tony Ruesga, Voces de la Frontera executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz and Iowa County dairy farmer Dan Patenaude joined Boyer for a panel discussion on Oct. 17 in Dodgeville. WCIJ/KRYSSY PEASE

By Kryssy Pease

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

DODGEVILLE — Rapid increases in the Latino population of Wisconsin’s rural areas are reshaping work, school and social life, but also are raising concerns that Spanish-speaking immigrants are often isolated and mistrusted, experts and residents said at an event aimed at fostering better connections between newcomers and long-time residents.

Dan Patenaude, an Iowa County dairy farmer who employs two immigrant workers, told about 60 people attending the Oct. 17 Rural Immigration Summit that Hispanic immigrants in rural Wisconsin are an “invisible community.”

“I think a good part of the reason is because we’ve created a system that doesn’t encourage them to be a part of our society,” Patenaude said. “We can’t fix international problems in Dodgeville but maybe we can work on this community problem. We can find whatever ways we can to assist the foreign workers to participate in the community or to feel as comfortable as they can day in and day out going about their daily business.”

The event at Plymouth Congregational Church was sponsored by University of Wisconsin-Extension. Similar events were held in other parts of rural Wisconsin in 2007 and 2008.

Wisconsin’s Hispanic population was heavily concentrated in the urban, Southeastern parts of the state in 1990, but now is increasingly dispersed in rural areas. Iowa County experienced a 262-percent increase in its Latino population from 1990 to 2007.

The impact on the workforce of the state’s dairy farms is dramatic. A decade ago, immigrant workers held 5 percent of the jobs on Wisconsin dairy farms. Now the figure is 40 percent, according to a survey by the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.

Iowa County resident Kent Mayfield helped organize the event after attending one of the previous summits and noticing changes in the makeup of his community over the past several years.

“I wanted to find an opportunity for the community to learn from each other, to build awareness, to become more sensitized,” Mayfield said.  “I wondered what we could do in our own community to change the quality of life for the people with whom we are living and for ourselves as well.”

Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee
Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee

Presenters covered demographic, political, social and historical issues related to Latino immigration in rural Wisconsin.

Rep. Pedro Colón, a Puerto Rican immigrant and Democrat from Milwaukee, discussed the frustrations he’s faced regarding immigration policy. This year, the Legislature passed a law that makes some undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition. But the Legislature rejected a measure from Colón that would have allowed undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s identification card.

“Undocumented people aren’t going to stop taking their kids to school, they’re not going to stop grocery shopping, they’re not going to stop visiting the doctor. These things are going to happen so we do need this driver’s license bill,” Colón said. “Unfortunately, politically, the conversation doesn’t allow policymakers to do the things that we need to.”

One attendee, Dodgeville resident Michael Langer, tried to broaden the summit’s local focus by raising questions about national immigration policy — particularly the fact that many undocumented immigrants entered the United States illegally.

“The issue that’s being ignored today is the part about our laws,” Langer said. “These people broke the law and did not play by the rules, and that is a source of a lot of anger.”

After some debate, Paul Ohlrogge, a community resource development agent at UW-Extension in Iowa County, steered the panelists back to discussing immigration in Southwestern Wisconsin.

Mayfield and several people interviewed after the event said it succeeded in bringing immigrants out of the shadows.

“These people are not going to go away,” Mayfield said. “If we keep them in this invisible, isolated situation, we won’t gain from the opportunity they afford us and they won’t gain from us. It will be a win-win if we can find the mechanisms for bringing them into our community, and that’s what I hope people got out of today.”

Editor’s note: The Country Today, a weekly newspaper focusing upon agricultural and rural issues, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism are collaborating on a project exploring Wisconsin’s growing reliance upon immigrant dairy workers. The news organizations are seeking story tips and perspectives. The first stories will be published in November.

VIDEO: Farmers discuss immigrant workers

July 27, 2009


Click to watch Wisconsin Public Television, a partner with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, talk with state  farmers about the role of Hispanic immigrant workers in the dairy industry, as part of a new investigation launched by the Center.

Doyle on dairy: Immigrant worker role increasing

July 27, 2009

Originally posted July 21, 2009

By Lexie Clinton and Jacob Kushner
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

WATERLOO — Top Wisconsin officials acknowledged Tuesday that Wisconsin dairy farmers increasingly rely upon immigrant workers, including large numbers who may be undocumented — a result of demand for labor and the nation’s porous borders.

doyle-on-farm“It is true in agriculture in some areas of the state more than others, that the need for agricultural workers is very strong and that increasingly the number of people working are immigrants,” Gov. Jim Doyle told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism at Farm Technology Days, one of the state’s largest annual gatherings of farmers.

Today, about 40 percent of the workers in the state’s dairy industry are Latino immigrants, according to a UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies report.

The high concentration of immigrants in the dairy industry, Doyle says, means “we have a lot of jobs and we need to hire a lot of people.”

Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen said the state Department of Workforce Development Bureau of Migrant, Refugee, and Labor Services helps to protect the rights of this vulnerable work force — at least the rights of documented workers the state knows about.

Since 2004, state officials have been pursuing legislation and tax incentives to help dairy farms grow, but these bigger farms need more workers.

In a speech Tuesday, Doyle promoted the state’s Dairy Investment Tax Credit program, which gives farmers tax breaks for investing in technology and modernizing equipment.

nilsestuenThe Crave Brothers Farm, a 1,100-cow dairy farm and cheese factory that is hosting this year’s Farm Technology Days, is participating in a section of the program that encourages investment in cheese production — which will generate 20 new jobs at their farm this year.

While Nilsestuen acknowledged that many of the immigrants working on dairy farms could be undocumented, he said the state is limited in what it can do. “This is national policy that needs to be settled,” Nilsestuen said of immigration. “The state of Wisconsin as an island won’t solve the problem by itself.”

Meanwhile, Nilsestuen said, the state is doing “what we can to make sure work conditions are decent.”

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is teaming up with The Country Today, a rural and agricultural newspaper, to investigate immigrant workers in Wisconsin’s dairy industry. The news organizations are seeking story tips, advice and perspectives on such issues as the industry’s reliance on immigrant labor and the impact of immigrants on local communities.

Center to probe growing role of immigrants on state dairy farms

July 27, 2009


Originally posted July 20, 2009

By the Staff of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The face of America’s Dairyland is changing, as growing numbers of immigrants run the milking parlors and feed the herds across Wisconsin.

Just this month, the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies released studies of immigrant labor, which now accounts for 40 percent of the dairy work force in Wisconsin.

Among other things, the studies conclude that immigration policies and enforcement “reinforce language barriers and limit immigrants’ abilities to pursue their claims and seek legal protections, thus contributing to inequalities in the workplace.” National estimates indicate that half of immigrant dairy workers lack immigration papers.

The state tax system continues to offer enticements to dairy farmers who modernize their facilities — which in turn leads to growth in herd sizes and compels dairy farmers to boost staffing levels at their expanded farms.

These sweeping changes within one of Wisconsin’s signature industries — and their impacts across the state — are the focus of a new collaborative reporting project of The Country Today, a statewide agricultural and rural newspaper, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization probing government integrity and quality of life issues.

We seek your story tips, advice and perspectives as we launch this investigation into such issues as:

  • Are dairy workers who live in the shadows subjected to substandard working conditions or pay?
  • Can Wisconsin’s dairy industry, which competes strongly with California and other states, afford to operate without relying upon large numbers of undocumented immigrants, chiefly from Mexico?
  • Is increasing reliance on immigrant labor at large farms hurting Wisconsin’s small family farms?
  • How well-equipped are Wisconsin schools, health-care systems, law-enforcement agencies and communities to handle the influx of Spanish-speaking residents?

cow-small-photoWe look forward to hearing from you.

To submit a story tip or suggestion to The Country Today, contact Editor Jim Massey at jimmassey@mhtc.net or 608-924-9909. For those who use Facebook on the Internet, search for “The Country Today” and become a fan to interact on the page.

“The collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism allows The Country Today to do something that would have been very difficult to do with our small staff and weekly deadline constraints,” The Country Today Editor Jim Massey said. “It’s a win-win for us, our readers and the center – we can work together on an important project.”

You’re also invited to contact Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director, at ahall@wisconsinwatch.org, submit a tip on the Center’s Web site, www.WisconsinWatch.org, or call the Center at 608-262-3642.

“We look forward to collaborating with The Country Today staff — and to hearing from the public — about these issues that are so critical to the growing population of immigrants and to all residents of America’s Dairyland,” Hall said.

More information about the immigrant labor study is available at www.pats.wisc.edu/projects/2

In the months to come, we’ll report back to you to describe what we’ve discovered about the changing face of America’s Dairyland. We expect to publish our first stories in late summer or early fall.