In Pepin County, workers flee the dairy farms

In America’s dairyland, immigrants keep the cows milked and the farm economy running.

Now, they’re leaving, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio report. They’re going to Mexico.

Miguel Hernandez, for example, has worked the Knoepkes farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He fears deportation.

“Miguel has been our right hand,” Doug Knoepke said. “He treated (the farm) like he owned it. We’re really saddened, scared. I don’t know. It’s sad.”

Immigrant labor, many here illegally, is critical to the dairy industry in these parts.

“I don’t know where the industry would be without (immigrant labor) right now,” Knoepke says. “We’re relyin’ on it and what it does for Wisconsin and our economy.”

There are temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers, but year-round workers who make up the vast majority of the labor force on Wisconsin’s large dairies have no special protections, and many are in the country illegally. Unless Congress changes that, Knoepke says, the loss of immigrant farm workers will “bring us to our knees.”

“They better do something … because (workers) are leaving. You see it right here. They’re packin’ up.”

“Because they’re scared of the government, a lot of families are leaving. Because they can’t get around comfortably anymore because they’re scared of getting taken and deported,” Damaso Hernandez, Miguel’s brother, says. “It’s strange, it’s difficult because all the Hispanic people knew the Americans here in Wisconsin were supporting Donald Trump.

“I think they made a mistake,” he adds, “Because a lot of people are fleeing for precisely that reason.”

WPR reported that farmers in western Wisconsin have been visited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and warned they’ll be back, suggesting the possibility of sweeping raids that farmers say could weaken the local economy.

Dairy workers around Durand, Wis., decided to leave after rumors swept the community that ICE was in town.

“It’s better to go back home because of the laws — they’re coming after us,” says Luis Mendez, 32, who milks cows and helps out as a mechanic at the Knoepke farm. “It’s better to go willingly and be with the family rather than getting deported or something like that.”

If you are deported, he says, “You take the clothes you’re wearing … and that’s it.” But with a planned departure, Mendez says, immigrants can keep their belongings and money.

“This way I’m going calmly, at ease.”

On the day before he left, Hernandez had to work at the farm. There was manure to clean up, and the farm owners had no one else to do it.