From JSOnline.com, Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, Georgia Pabst, 30 Jul 2011.
Immigration battle lands in the heart of rural America
New Holstein, WI – As daylight breaks, David Geiser is already in the barn of the Gold Star Dairy farm tending to more than 300 head of Holsteins on his sprawling farm.
Like his father and grandfather, Geiser has lived and worked on this farm, founded by his Polish and German immigrant ancestors, all his life. Next year the farm will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Deborah Reinhart, whose Quaker ancestors were dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, works alongside her husband as the farm business manager and also cares for the young livestock. The couple raised three sons, who are now grown and gone to other careers and other locales.
But Geiser and Reinhart remain.
“This is our life,” Reinhart said. “It’s who we are and what we do. The dairy mentality is deep in my soul. Everything David and I have is tied up in this land.”
Now they find themselves caught up in the contentious immigration battle that stretches from the halls of Washington to this quiet rural landscape and Wisconsin’s signature industry. They worry that proposed legislation that would require all employers to use a new system – called E-Verify – to confirm employment eligibility could jeopardize their livelihood.
About four in 10 dairy farm workers are immigrants, many believed to be undocumented.
“If E-Verify passes, it will kill the dairy industry in Wisconsin,” Reinhart said. “I’m scared to death.”
The E-Verify bill, or Legal Workforce Act, was introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who framed it as a jobs bill saying illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans who need them.
E-Verify is an electronic, Internet-based system operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. It checks Social Security numbers to determine whether a person can legally work in the United States.
Right now it’s optional, but Smith’s bill would make it a requirement, and there could be criminal penalties for employers. The agriculture industry would have three years to implement the system.
“With unemployment at 9%, jobs are scarce,” Smith said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “Despite record unemployment, 7 million people work in the U.S. illegally. There is no other legislation that can be enacted that will create more jobs for American workers.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said: “Individuals come here illegally because they know they can find work outside our immigration system. By making E-Verify mandatory, we will ensure employers are hiring American workers and legal immigrants.”
But the bill has strong critics.
The American Civil Liberties Union notes the system as it stands has an error rate of 2% to 3%. That means hundreds of thousands could be denied work because of errors, said Chris Calabrese, ACLU’s legislative counsel.
And the National Milk Producers Federation said the bill is “undesirable” without comprehensive immigration reform, or a visa program that would allow dairy farmers to hire immigrant workers.
Under the current system, employers must fill out and keep on file what are called I-9 forms, which contain information that shows the employee is eligible to work. But it’s not the employer’s responsibility to verify the information.
The shift to E-Verify, which puts the onus on the employers, worries Reinhart and Geiser and other dairy farmers.
About 11 years ago when the couple couldn’t find enough local workers to help them milk the cows around-the-clock, 365 days a year, they started hiring Mexican immigrants. Reinhart said she believed what she called the “new wave of immigrants” would continue the American story of arrival, hard work, settlement and assimilation – like their own immigrant ancestors.
For a while things were OK. But as immigration has grown into a political lightning rod, Reinhart and Geiser, like other dairy farmers in Wisconsin and across the country, find themselves in a delicate situation when it comes to their critical labor needs and those they hire to do the work.
“We’re scared. We might be breaking the law, but we don’t know it,” Reinhart said. “We would never, ever break the law, but it’s close. All we’re trying to do is manage a business and feed the world, and here we find ourselves in a terrible kettle of fish.”
41% of workers foreign
The Gold Star farm, which employs six workers, isn’t alone in looking to immigrant labor in the dairy state. A 2009 study by Jill Harrison, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of rural sociology, found that immigrants – primarily Mexicans – make up 40% of dairy employees in the state
Meanwhile, a national survey sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation found that 41% of the farms surveyed relied on foreign-born workers.
The Wisconsin study points to the cultural and demographic shifts in which many rural young people leave the farm for the city and elsewhere. Reinhart said she thought that with joblessness so high there would be more local, what she calls “traditional workers,” but that’s not been the case. Applicants want weekends off, or have health or other problems that limit their work, she said.
The immigrant workers have become so valuable because they work hard, they’re dependable and they work well with the dairy cows, she said.
“Cows like repetition, continuity and boredom, and we want them treated the same all the time,” Reinhart said. “If not, they won’t give milk. They will get scared and maybe fall and hurt themselves. That’s why consistent and stable labor is so important.”
Roberto Carlos Jimenez, 27, the milking parlor manager at Gold Star Dairy Farm, has been working at the farm for five years. He came here from Mexico with a stop in California. The work is hard, and there are long hours – about 10 hours a day, he said in Spanish. He now makes $11.25 an hour.
“I’ve grown to like the job,” he said. “It’s routine, but you get used to it. You have to be calm, and you have to leave your moods and problems outside. You can’t treat the cows badly. You have to be calm.”
Although many might consider the work unskilled, it’s not like digging ditches, Reinhart said.
There’s heavy equipment to run, milking equipment to learn to use, feed to mix, science-based practices, policies and procedures to follow, and animal well-being to encourage, she said. That requires that employees get trained, which takes time.
Farming is tough business
The state’s dairy industry drives a big part of the economy, contributing $26.5 billion a year, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The average dairy cow generates more than $20,000 a year, which is pumped back into the community and local businesses.
During the past five years, dairy producers and processing firms have invested more than $2.5 billion to modernize farms, cheese plants and other infrastructure in the state, according to the board. Some 99% of the state’s 12,700 dairy farms are family-owned.
Dairy farming is a tough business, said John Rosenow of Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy in Waumandee, on the western edge of the state. He’s become an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform nationally because it’s needed to provide a stable, secure dairy workforce.
“Right now it’s a fair statement to say that 60% of the milk that’s harvested is harvested by immigrants, and the vast majority are probably undocumented,” he said. “If they do E-Verify and follow up with strong enforcement, it will kill the dairy industry that’s been growing pretty strongly.”
Rosenow’s views are shared by fellow dairy man Tim O’Harrow of Oconto Falls. He is politically the polar opposite of his longtime friend – though they agree on this issue.
“As it is, it’s an unworkable situation,” O’Harrow said. “What’s more disconcerting is that I’m proud to say I’m a Republican, and Republicans are the ones who are trying to impose the cost of this upon employers who are the ones that contribute to their re-election bids.
“Food is a cost and if we allow food to go offshore, like we have other products, we will become a second-class world power.”
While agriculture opposes E-Verify, a Rasmussen poll taken in May showed that 82% of those surveyed thought businesses should be required to use E-Verify to determine work eligibility, while 12% opposed the requirement.
When asked about the survey, Reinhart said she doesn’t believe there’s a good understanding of how it would affect agriculture. That’s why she said she talks to groups and organizations about the dairy industry and its labor problems.
Although the House has yet to take up the E-Verify bill, some states are going ahead on their own.
The U. S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s E-Verify law. Other states, such as Georgia, Mississippi and Utah, have enacted their own E-Verify laws.
A commitment and a cost
Brillion dairy farmers Gordon and Cathy Speirs are Canadian immigrants hiring Latino immigrants “with the U.S. in the middle,” Gordon Speirs said.
In 2003 the third-generation dairy farmer emigrated from Canada and started the Shiloh Dairy Farms. They now have 200 acres and milk 1,450 cows with a workforce that’s 90% immigrants.
He and his wife came on an investment visa based on their investing $1 million and creating 10 jobs. Later, he said, he had to get green cards for himself, his wife and their three children. Legal and other costs have totaled about $100,000, he said.
“The reason I have immigrant workers is not about the cost of paying them – we will pay what they’re worth – but the immigrant workforce has a commitment to the job that you can’t find in the local labor market,” he said.
What he believes is needed is an agriculture jobs bill or comprehensive immigration reform, but he’s watched reform efforts fail under President George W. Bush and now President Barack Obama.
While he doesn’t believe E-Verify will kill the dairy industry, there will be a cost, he said.
“If we don’t have a workforce, it will decimate our ability to do our job,” he said. “Right now, dairy is the No. 1 industry in Wisconsin. If it catches a cough, the economy gets the flu.”
As he sees it, there a choice: “Your food will be produced by a foreign worker in this country or in another country.”