Wisconsin rally illustrates changing face of the farm

Today’s Day Without Latinos protest in Madison, Wis., is an invitation to forget everything you think you knew about the dairy industry in the Dairy State.

Hundreds are jamming the state Capitol today to protest two bills from the Wisconsin Assembly: One, forbids any city from ordering its police departments not to question the immigration status of people. The other restricts local governments in issuing IDs to people who otherwise may have trouble getting one. Wisconsin is a voter ID state.

Where is the impact of today’s action most keenly felt? In the barns of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Forty percent of the people working on the state’s farms are immigrants and 40 percent of them are from Mexico.

Farmers are lining up against the measures.

Neither of the bills is necessarily a threat to the dairy industry’s immigrant workforce, according to farmers. However, they make immigrants feel unwelcome, and that could result in some people leaving the state for other states that don’t have such laws.

“That disturbs me very much because my employees are very welcomed,” Niles said. “The vast majority of my workforce, with the exception of my family and two other people, are all from outside the United States originally. I think this country was established by people who had the drive to leave their own limited situation and to create a better life for themselves. And that is still going on.”

The Dairy Business Association opposes the legislation that’s been criticized by the immigrant community.

“It’s not just a question of passing a bill that may not have that much of an impact, but it really does make a difference to us in retaining our current workforce and attracting new employees,” Holevoet said.

The dairy industry has pushed hard for immigration law reform that would allow foreign workers to be employed on U.S. farms year-round and could give them a pathway to permanent jobs in whatever industries they choose.

According to one study, 90 percent of the milk in the United States comes via immigrant labor.

“We need these people in our state,” farmer Thomas Wagner of Middleton told the Wisconsin State Journal. “They are good, honest, hard workers. I don’t think our legislators understand the consequences of what they’re doing.”