Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Scott Walker’s immigration policies cause fear in Wisconsin’s dairyland

Despite 2016 contender’s recent tough talk, state’s $43 billion dairy industry powered by immigrant labor

SAUK CITY, Wis. — By the time the first rays of sun touched down on Mitch Bruenig’s farm, sprawled across 900 lush green acres of America’s dairyland, the operation was whirring with activity.

Bruenig, the Wisconsin-born-and-bred owner who came back to tend to the family farm in 1993 after studying dairy science in Madison, attended to an early morning equipment delivery. Juan Sancristobal, a stocky, tanned Uruguayan who prefers Madison summers to those in his home country, spent the morning preparing the feed in a mixing truck. And as the cows were ushered from the barn into the milk parlor, 20 at a time, Hermes Francisco, who learned to take care of farm animals in his native Nicaragua, worked methodically, wiping down their undersides with a towel dabbed with disinfectant before hooking each to the milking machine.

With 380 cows, the process would take all morning, before it was time to start all over again for the afternoon and night milkings.  Hours of gritty, grueling work would ultimately lead to the production of hundreds of pounds of dairy bound for high-end pizza parlors up and down the East Coast via Bruenig’s buyer, a Wisconsin-based cheese manufacturer.

Bruenig said maintaining a reliable workforce — seven out of nine are immigrants from Latin and Central America — is a critical part to keeping his business afloat.

“I couldn’t do all of this and at the same time, run the business,” he said. “The most important thing is, who’s willing to do the job, willing to train and improve every day, and that’s what my staff really wants. We are always working on getting better.”

Hermes Francisco, an immigrant from Nicaragua, milks hundreds of cows during his early morning shift at Mystic Valley Dairy in Sauk City, Wis.
Naureen Khan / Al Jazeera America

These days, Bruenig’s employees look much like the rest of the labor force powering Wisconsin’s $43.4 billion dairy industry, more than 40 percent of which is made up of immigrants, according to a conservative estimate from a 2009 University of Wisconsin-Madison study. Many of them — like Sancristobal and Gonzalez — are undocumented. 

The importance of immigrant labor to dairy may come as a surprise to some who have followed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s trajectory on the issue as he’s gone from a swing state governor to a 2016 presidential contender.  Critics say Walker’s rightward drift reflects a tendency to capitulate to the whims of the Republican party’s base, particularly on social issues, no matter what the realities on the ground may be.

As recently as 2013, Walker said he supported a pathway to citizenship for a portion of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and derided a “broken system.” The year prior, he told his Republican-led legislature that bills cracking down on the immigrant population in Wisconsin, modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, “would be a huge distraction.”

But as the governor ramped up his national profile, his rhetoric and positions have changed. Walker now says that after learning more, he no can no longer support “amnesty.” In recent months, he has gone even further, suggesting that he may be in favor of limiting legal immigration and ending birthright citizenship. On Monday, he said his immigration plan was “very similar” to that of GOP rival Donald Trump, who has said he would deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall, paid for by Mexico, along the United States's southern border.  

That protectionist stance not only puts him to the right of many of his rivals for the Republican nomination — including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — but at odds with the state’s dairy industry, which has actively lobbied for years for immigration reform.

“The need is real and it is immediate for us and it’s something that we needed to address years ago,” said John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association. “We’d like to see some avenue to allow those workers who are currently working for us to stay regardless of their status. … They already know the trade and there’s no reason that they shouldn’t stay and continue working.” 

Holevoet emphasized that such an avenue didn't necessarily have to include a path to citizenship and that Walker had been a friend to the dairy industry in the past. 

Erich Straub, a Milwaukee-based immigration lawyer who works with dairy producers took a bleaker view. If the policies Walker is espousing now were actually enacted, including sending undocumented immigrants back to their country of origin to “get in line” for legal status, the dairy industry and the Wisconsin economy would be decimated, he said. 

Straub said it’s particularly galling to see Walker take such a position when the governor is well aware of that immigrants fill a critical labor gap in the state. None of the current temporary agricultural visas meet dairy’s needs, he said, given that farmers need a steady supply of workers not just seasonally, but every day of the year.

“Scott Walker on immigration puts his finger up to the wind and sees where it’s blowing,” he said. “Now that Governor Walker doesn’t need the Wisconsin dairy industry and he is more concerned about winning the GOP nomination — where folks who are very anti-immigrant have a much greater say in the nominating process — he has tacked right and done a complete 180. He’ll do what he needs for the particular election that he’s in.”

John Rosenow, a fifth-generation dairy producer who owns a farm in western Wisconsin, too said his livelihood depended on his immigrant workers. Ten of his 20 employees are immigrants from Mexico.

If they were driven out of Wisconsin, “I would have to sell out, and quit farming,” he said.  

Moreover, Rosenow said the characterization of immigrants as a burden on the United States rang especially untrue in his experience.

“These are human being that are here working, they’re picking the strawberries and milking our cows, they’re putting roofs on our buildings in the middle of August and doing all this stuff that the rest of us don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “We make it look like they’re all horrible. All they want to do is make a living.”

The Walker campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the governor’s specific immigration proposals, in general or for agriculture specifically.

Immigration is not the first hot-button issue on which Walker has been accused of pushing red-meat proposals in the service of his presidential ambitions — particularly his need to curry favor with the conservative activists who play an outsized role in the GOP nominating process — despite the practicality of those policies. 

After cutting an ad in the heat of his 2014 re-election campaign that affirmed his opposition to abortion rights but emphasized that a final decision should be “left to a woman and her doctor,” Walker signed a bill last month that outlawed the procedure after 20 weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest. In this year’s state budget, Walker also championed and ultimately passed a measure that would require some applicants of public assistance to undergo drug testing, despite that there is little evidence to suggest substance abuse is a problem among low-income benefit recipients.

“Drug testing for FoodShare recipients may be a good talking point on the campaign trail but there’s no evidence that it’s a cost effective investment of state funds,” said Jon Peacock, research director of Wisconsin Children and Families, referring to the state’s food stamp program. “It’s tapping into people’s worst instincts and incorrect impression that people on public assistance are more likely to use drugs, when the evidence shows that they are not.”

Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national director of American Majority, a national grassroots conservative organization, nonetheless said Walker’s record of sticking to his guns on issues of importance to Republican voters and notching a series of conservative accomplishments would serve him well as he campaigns for president.

“Pound for pound, he has the strongest conservative record of any governor running for president and that matches up well against the senators who are running, who were serving in the minority or are up against the veto pen of the president,” he said. “He has credibility with the base on the right.”

Politics aside, workers on Bruenig’s farm said normalizing their status would make a meaningful difference in their lives.

Santocristobal has worked at Mystic Valley for 11 years, almost as long as he’s been in the United States, first as a milker and now as a general jack-of-all-trades. His wife and four children, the eldest of whom is a participant in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, have far better opportunities in Wisconsin than they would have had in Uruguay, he said. Still, he wishes for a more stable existence.

“The situation is kind of hard,” Santocristobal said. “I want to work and for my kids to go to school — that’s all.”

Bruenig said he understood why immigration presented such a conundrum for policymakers and touched off so many emotions for Americans. But for him, hiring and retaining immigrant workers was a matter of dollars and cents, the only way his business can survive.

He first tried part-time high school students, but they couldn’t keep the demanding hours. Then came Russian immigrants, who eventually obtained professional visas and moved away from dairy work. Now, it’s mostly Hispanic workers who come looking for jobs on farms and can do them well. Some of Bruenig’s employees now live in his childhood home across the street.  

“It’s such a complex issue and there’s so many different ways to look at it,” he said. “But people that are here and contributing to society, they deserve a chance to have it be right — have it so that people aren’t hiding in the shadows.”

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