Wisconsin dairy farmers keep close eye on immigration reform

Wisconsin farmers are keeping a close eye on the immigration reform debate in Washington, D.C.

John Pagel, owner of a 4,500-cow dairy farm in Kewaunee, has 140 workers. About half are not U.S. citizens.

The dairy industry is unique because of the year-round nature of the business. Cows are milked year-round, but some visas only allow foreign workers to stay in this country for months at a time.

The work is hard and the hours are long. Employees often rack up 57 hours a week, without receiving overtime because labor laws have an exception for agriculture.

Many of the people who work at Pagel’s Ponderosa are not U.S. citizens, but they fill out the same employment eligibility form they would in any other industry. Pagel said his employees are here legally and they’re dismissed if he learns they are not. He has no way of knowing, when hiring someone, whether he or she has the appropriate paperwork until the Internal Revenue Service raises a red flag.

Pagel depends on foreign workers due to the difficult nature of the work and long hours that accompany the labor. He advertises open positions in local newspapers, but he said area residents do not apply for those jobs.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “Local people don’t want to work on a farm that number of hours. These are very good people, hard workers.”

Depending on experience and their position, Pagel said his workers earn between $30,000 and $60,000 annually, and receive medical benefits and paid vacation. They’re also subject to federal and state taxes.

“Migrant labor work is seasonal, and those programs work great (for fruits and vegetable crops),” Pagel said. “But we need programs that keep them here year-round, for at least three to five years. Turnover is too high, and it’s hard to replace people. You train someone, he’s a hard worker, you want to keep that guy.”

The workers
Santos Rodriguez has worked for Pagel for 10 years and is from Mexico. He started as a laborer milking cows, and now manages the farm.

He and his wife have applied for American citizenship, and his 9-year-old daughter is an American citizen. His parents remain in Mexico, but he wants to remain in the United States. The citizenship process has been difficult, but that has not dampened his resolve.

“I like living here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been two years, and a lot of papers. We gotta follow the rules, and I enjoy staying here.”

Without workers like Rodriguez and others, Pagel said his operations would be limited.

“I wouldn’t be milking this many,” he said of the 4,500 cows on his farm.

The year-round nature of the dairy industry separates it from other agribusiness, said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, an advocacy group working for lower immigration levels in the United States.

“Dairy farmers aren’t seasonal, and that’s a legit issue,” Beck said. “(Visas) could be revised to make this easier for farmers. We are opposed to permanent guest workers, because they bring in families, sink roots and they aren’t just guest workers — they use the republic’s institutions, bringing families in, creating a lot of extra expenses in education system and for taxpayers.”

The fight for amnesty, or even a path to amnesty for immigrants, will be counterproductive for the farmers making that push, Beck said. Amnesty effectively grants citizenship to individuals in the country, even if they’ve entered illegally. And Beck said individuals who receive amnesty may not feel compelled to rejoin the agricultural workforce, taking away jobs from current American citizens.

“The farmers’ situation hasn’t improved as a result of its own lobby hitching its wagon to amnesty,” Beck said.

Immigration numbers also would drop if families don’t accompany guest workers to the United States, Beck said. That would prevent guest workers from having children in the United States who are then U.S. citizens.

“With birthright citizenship, anybody that’s born to these guest workers gets United States citizenship, allowing the guest workers to overstay their visas,” Beck said. “Their big argument is you can’t send them home, they are parents of United States citizens. You can’t let guest workers bring family or you need get rid of birthright citizenship.”

Immigration politics
Wisconsin’s economy depends on the dairy industry — the state produces 26.1 million pounds of milk annually, the second highest in the nation behind California, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

The dairy industry, with 12,100 dairy farms in Wisconsin, advocates a guest worker program, said Jayme Sellen, Government Affairs Director for the Dairy Business Association, an advocacy group for the industry.

“Current programs are seasonal, applying to fruits and vegetables, but cows need to be taken care of year round, not just four or five months of the year,” she said. “We also need to deal with the individuals currently here, so they can earn some sort of legal status, through background checks or paying fines. There also needs to be enforcement of procedures currently put in place. It’s important for the people currently here, they have to undergo background checks and pay fines.”

In Wisconsin, 40 percent of people working on dairy farms are immigrants, she said. The 2010 census recorded 263,414 foreign-born people in the state, more than 4 percent of the population.

“American people are not applying for these jobs,” Sellen said. “It’s common for a dairy producer to put an ad in the paper, and they won’t hear anything for months, not even a phone call. We have a workforce shortage, not enough people want to take these jobs, and that’s despite competitive wages, health insurance and vacation benefits.”

Without immigration reform, she said, the labor shortage will worsen. She said farms will be unable to expand, they’ll have to send off cows, with consumers ultimately feeling the pain.

“We’re already in a milk deficit — we import between 7 to 10 percent of milk from other states,” Sellen said. “That will ultimately pour down to the consumer, they’ll have to pay more at the grocery store.”

President Barack Obama said immigration reform is a priority in his second term during this week’s State of the Union. The Democratic president stressed the need for stronger border security and a “responsible plan for earned citizenship” but did not provide more details.

Since Obama’s re-election, he has proposed having illegals undergo background checks, paying back taxes and taking English classeson the path to citizenship. Republicans signaled they are open to allowing legal residency for illegal immigrants, but not a path to citizenship for the individuals.

Immigration reform is crucial on many levels and it’s an issue both political parties want to handle, said Alison Staudinger, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Republicans need to gain ground with the growing Hispanic population, Staudinger said. Democrats have consistently won the Hispanic vote, but Republican positions on social issues match up well with that population.

“Both sides seem to see immigration as the key to capturing these votes, and now they are scrambling to get there first in a way they can justify to their individual states or districts, which may be less open to immigration reform than the national parties,” she said in an email.

“There is broad based support for comprehensive immigration reform, but that doesn’t mean that either voters or politicians agree on what that means, with particular tension over … what one side calls ‘a path to citizenship’ and the other ‘amnesty.’”

—published in Green Bay Press-Gazette, February, 2013

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