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September 2023 - Episode 3
Roadblocks of Reality: The Plight of Undocumented Immigrants in Dairy Country
In Central Wisconsin, undocumented immigrants from Latin America make up the majority of the workforce in the dairy industry. Although these undocumented folks are allowed to own and register vehicles, they can’t get driver’s licenses without legal residency. As a result, police in rural Wisconsin often racially profile drivers of color, knowing that they may not have a license to be on the road.
We spoke to Melissa Sanchez, a reporter for ProPublica who inspired this episode with her article, “Wisconsin’s Dairy Industry Relies on Undocumented Immigrants, but the State Won’t Let Them Legally Drive.” We also heard from Tony Gonzalez, founder of the American Hispanic Association, and local dairy farmer Hans Breitenmoser.
Charles T. Brown:
Hey, everyone. This is Charles T. Brown, host of the Arrested Mobility podcast. Before we get started, I am super proud to announce that Arrested Mobility has been selected as a finalist in the second annual Signal Awards. Please follow the links in the show notes so you can vote for us and we can win the People’s Choice Awards for activism, public service and social impact, and for show art. Thank you in advance. Now back to the show.
You don’t see a thriving community, people moving around a community freely like it should be here in North Central Wisconsin. It almost seems like the futile system back in years ago where the farm is the castle and the workers just their lives are limited to what’s within those walls. So it does present a lot of problems because people need to go to hospitals, take their kids to school, and they’re not able to freely without feeling the fear of being stopped because they’re going to see brown behind the wheel.
Charles T. Brown:
In Central Wisconsin, undocumented immigrants from Latin America make up the majority of the workforce in the dairy industry. Out here in the middle of the state, there is no public transportation and the distances are too far to walk or bike. Although these undocumented folks are allowed to own and register vehicles, they can’t get driver’s licenses without legal residency. But they have to drive in order to get to the grocery store, the doctor, or church. As a result, police in rural Wisconsin often racially profile drivers of color knowing that they may not have a license to be on the road. So undocumented workers are frequently pulled over and ticketed. They might be fined for a whole day’s worth of wages just for driving to get a haircut.
Arrested mobility doesn’t just affect Black people in big cities, the suburbs and rural communities, sometimes it happens in the heart of America to immigrants of color who have left their homes in search of a better life. My name is Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.
This story is based on a ProPublica article co-written by Melissa Sanchez. She’s a reporter whose work mostly focuses on immigrants and low-wage workers. She became aware of this situation while investigating dangerous housing and working conditions in the dairy industry. Melissa’s article was published in August of 2023 after she and her co-writer, Maryam Jameel, spoke with over a hundred current and former dairy workers.
Wisconsin is home to about 70,000 undocumented people. And prior to 2006, the state, like a lot of states in the US, allowed people to get trained and licensed to drive regardless of immigration status. But at around that time, 2006, 2007, the state law changed in response to federal laws that were intended to prevent 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s a bit convoluted, but the federal government wanted to ensure the people who were getting driver’s licenses that could be used to board airplanes were the people who they said they were. And part of that process was getting proof of citizenship or legal status.
So as a result of this federal legislation, states like Wisconsin began requiring proof of citizenship or legal status from everybody. And what that meant is all of these undocumented people would eventually lose their access to driver’s licenses. Those licenses expired. And new undocumented people who showed up and who are continuing to show up every day just couldn’t get access to driver’s license. And this affects dairy workers. This affects the people who paint houses and lay shingles and wash dishes. It affects a lot of people all over the state. But it’s particularly consequential for people who live in rural parts of the state where there’s no access to public transportation, where they live on farms and become essentially trapped where they live and work because they can’t legally drive a car and have a life outside of the farm.
Charles T. Brown:
Why is the inability to get a driver’s license a problem for undocumented workers, particularly on these dairy farms?
So there’s a few ways that this really harms people and their ability to live. The most pressing that people will tell you about if you ask is that they are afraid of getting pulled over by police and ticketed. And so I’ve talked to workers who have gotten ticketed more than a dozen times. And they get behind the wheel because they have to drive to some grocery store 20 miles away to cash in their check and send home remittances and buy groceries. But along the way, they are aware that at any moment a sheriff’s deputy or police officer could pull them over.
And it happens frequently. It can start at about $124, but it can easily escalate to 400 or $500 for each subsequent defense. And when you’re talking about these workers, they might make on average between 12 and $14 an hour. They work 60 hours a week, 70 hours a week. Agriculture is excluded from the vast majority of labor protections in this country, and that means there’s no additional time and a half overtime pay for that. $124 or $400 or $500 is a lot of money for these people. So each time they get ticketed, it’s really painful financially. So that’s one of the biggest harms.
And as a consequence of the policing and the ticketing folks feel trapped at work, and this is language that I heard directly from workers. They feel stuck. And yes, they do want to work a lot of hours and they’re going to be on the farm a lot, but their inability to drive legally without that fear of getting pulled over means they don’t have social lives. They’re rarely able to interact with people they care about. I’ve talked to guys who have been single for years and they’re like, “How am I ever going to meet a woman?” Even the most basic dating is difficult. And you might think like, “Well, they make that choice.” But it’s a part of being a human is being able to interact with other people, and it’s really hard for them. So they don’t go to the doctors, they can’t take their kids to school, they can’t go to church.
Charles T. Brown:
In Melissa’s article, a Mexican dairy worker says, “I’ve been pulled over probably 15 times. They recognize me immediately and call me by my name saying, ‘I told you not to drive.’ But I have to drive to get to work.” Tracking down these workers for interviews was no simple task. The ProPublica investigation took months.
There’s a phrase in Spanish, like the work of little ants. It’s so difficult to find these people. We can’t just show up on dairy farms and ask to talk to the workers. They can call the police for trespassing. Even though we know folks live on the farms, we might know where their house is, it’s challenging to just show up and knock on the door because we don’t have necessarily a legal right to be there. It’s kind of a delicate situation.
So we’ve had to find other ways to find people. And one of them, a really helpful one has been identifying all the stores that we can across the state that might cater to Hispanic people. And so stores whose names are in Spanish, like [Spanish 00:08:08] or whatever, we’ll show up there, especially if it’s in rural Wisconsin. We visited 60 or 70 stores all over the state. And we try to make relationships with the people who work there, with our owners, explain what we’re doing.
We’ve created a series of flyers that we’ve been updating as the reporting has progressed over this past year that explained what we’re doing, who we are. They have nice little pictures of us and our phone numbers, our cell phone numbers. They’re all in Spanish. And we’ve been distributing those through the stores and then through people we meet in the community.
But inside of the stores we hang out. If the store owner lets us, we’ll just hang out there and then we will see people come in. So we’ll see dairy workers come in to cash their check or send money home or add more money to their cell phone cards. And while they’re in line, there we are me and my colleague Maryam. And we do our little song and dance explaining who we are, what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to get from them. And we either interview them on the spot if they let it happen, or we try to arrange a future date to talk.
But we’ve learned with this process that it’s better to get as much as we can in that interaction because that might be the only interaction we have because folks work so many crazy hours and they’re so busy, we’re not a priority for them.
Charles T. Brown:
What did you learn from the workers you spoke to? Why are they doing these jobs when the hours and conditions are so bad and it’s inconvenient for them to be located in these wide-open places?
Most of the folks we’ve talked to don’t want to do this job forever. There are really real reasons why it’s convenient for them to do it at first. And the main reason is there’s usually free housing onsite. And often it’s new immigrants who are coming to this country and they have a debt that they owe somebody who helped pay for their illegal immigration into this country. And there’s a cost to come. And the cost depends on what coyote you use to bring you over and whether you were caught or detained at some point along the way by a cartel. And it’s a really dangerous, awful trek that can be really expensive, especially if you’re detained multiple times by cartels. So the cost of this can be maybe 5,000 to 15,000 to $20,000 for one individual to make it from Central America or Southern Mexico into the US into Wisconsin.
And so when new immigrants come with a debt, it’s easier for them to live at work and save on the apartment costs because they can use more of the dollars they earn to pay off that debt quickly because the debt comes with interest. And they have taken out a loan often against their family’s home back in Guatemala or Nicaragua or wherever. So they have this pressing need to pay off that debt.
And so once that debt is paid off, a lot of people look for work elsewhere that’s less brutal and that has better hours, especially if they have kids. And the kind of work that people are going into, what I’ve been hearing, it’s increasingly in factories. Some go to restaurants and some end up leaving and then returning to dairy work because of this deal with the housing. Even though the housing might be very shoddy, it’s completely unregulated, it can be overcrowded, and there can be black mold and holes in the ceiling and all sorts of issues which I’ve seen, I’ve walked into these places. There can also be nice housing. There’s employers that have decent apartment in town. You have that problem of having to drive from your apartment to work, which creates an opportunity for tickets.
But some folks do return to dairy work because even though they don’t get overtime pay, they’re able to work a bunch of hours and they are trying to earn as much money as possible to either send back home or to one day bring their family here, or a lot of folks have come with a dream of saving up a lot of money to then build a house and open up a business back home. And so they’re working on that plan. And the dairy life, even though we would not consider it a well-paid job, it’s a heck of a lot more than they would make back home.
Charles T. Brown:
Working on a dairy farm pays the bills, but it’s certainly not glamorous. These are jobs that most people don’t really want to do. They’re dirty, tiring, and in some cases can be dangerous.
So on dairy farms, there’s two main jobs that undocumented immigrants tend to get. The most basic job is a job of a milker. And this is the person who goes into what’s called a milking parlor and they can be set up in different ways. You can imagine a room where in some capacity cows are set up and there’s machinery that you can attach these tubes, you kind of attach to the cow’s teats to pull out the milk, it sucks it out, and a human needs to walk around and install these one by one on all the cows and hit certain buttons to get the machines to work. And you have to do this in shifts because a farm might have 60, 100, 200, thousands of cows, and cows can be milked three times a day. You can’t milk all 1,000 or 100 cows at once. So you take batches of cows, do this process of putting the machinery on them to milk them. And so that’s the milker job.
But then somebody needs to bring those cows into the milking parlor and that job in Spanish, they call it [Spanish 00:13:39], the one who will corral the cows. So that person, usually a man, will be the one who brings the cows from a freestanding bar nearby and kind of walk them over. And it’s sort of a dangerous walk because cows are big, heavy animals that are kind of unpredictable. But that person will walk the cows over in groups to the milking parlor. And then that same person, depending on the size of the farm, but that person often is responsible for cleaning the manure because cows are constantly pooping. I just learned cows, this is kind of incredible, the cows poop 65 pounds a day. And if you have hundreds of cows, that’s tens of thousands of pounds of poop.
So that person’s job is to haul it away. They scrape it away using a machine called a skid steer, which is a small tractor that has an attachment with kind of a bucket that you can imagine will scrape it all up and then pick it up and then drives it to a lagoon full of manure where they dump it off. And so all day long somebody is doing this job of corralling cows in shifts. Cows can be built three times a day. And so depending on the size of the farm, it might be a 24-hour operation or there might be a couple of hours gap between milking shifts.
Charles T. Brown:
According to the Center for Migration Studies, 45% of all US agricultural workers are undocumented. In Wisconsin, that number’s even higher. We spoke to Tony Gonzalez, founder of the American Hispanic Association. Tony’s advocacy work includes helping undocumented dairy workers through the court systems when they run into trouble with the law. He stressed to us that every American is affected by what happens to our agricultural workforce. Consider this. If undocumented workers left Wisconsin or wherever else they’re located, it would become a lot harder to walk into a grocery store and pick up a gallon of milk or a pound of beef.
So it’s been estimated that 70% of the farm workers in the state of Wisconsin in particular, the dairy farmers are undocumented immigrants. Okay? It’s a huge number, but it’s a real number. So if the thousands that we have in the state of Wisconsin disappeared, we would have a lot of cows dying. That is the reality. There’d be nobody to tend these farms. These cows and these farms require cows to be taken care three times a day. And you get anywhere from farms that have 300 to 3,000 cows. And if these individuals were to get up and leave one day, it would be mass chaos. And not only in that industry, but at this time also we have a lot of undocumented immigrants that are working in the construction fields. They’re doing all the roofing, they’re doing all the street building and stuff. It would be devastating. It would hit the economy greatly. People will be hurting.
Charles T. Brown:
Do you think there’s any pressure at this point for a potential strike to happen?
It would take a lot for that to happen. Most of these families heavily depend on what their employers do give them, housing. So it’s very hard to be able to gather that number of workers and say, Hey, let’s stop working one day.”
Nonetheless, we have tried the opposite. Instead of having a day without Latinos, we show a day with Latinos. And I’ll give you an example. About a month and a half ago, two months now, we had a cultural event in our downtown area that’s called the 400 Block. This is a town that because of the Wisconsin River, they had a lot of paper mills. There’s a lot of old money right here. Over 90% of the population is Anglo.
They were amazed to see how many Hispanics there were. The overall question for all of them was, “Oh my God, we didn’t know that there was this much diversity in our area,” because they’re seeing it for the first time. And it’s not that it wasn’t there, it’s just that they were restricted and afraid coming out. Just now we’re really working through that barrier, making sure that people know that they got more neighbors and that way people start seeing what that workforce is right here and maybe pay more attention.
Charles T. Brown:
It would be great if Central Wisconsin was more visibly diverse, but visibility doesn’t necessarily solve the driver’s license problem because police and local government are already aware of the situation. Many of them recognize that ticketing undocumented drivers is inefficient and unjust. Here’s Melissa Sanchez.
A lot of folks are in agreement that what’s happening right now is not working. When you talk to prosecutors or police chiefs or sheriffs, they are aware that bringing people in and citing them or arresting them for not having a driver’s license isn’t necessarily making communities safer. How do we know that this Nicaraguan who just showed up and is driving to and from work actually knows the rules of the road? So there’s a lot of consensus that things could be safer if you find out who’s driving and make sure that they’re trained and you give them a license to drive if they can prove that they know what they’re doing.
And so what I’ve seen is that judges and prosecutors and attorneys are really overwhelmed with the volume of cases that are coming in, and some prosecutors, Republicans and Democrats, have simply stopped charging these cases criminally. I talked to one prosecutor who’s the only prosecutor in Burnett County, and she said, “I just can’t do all of the things. And I have to focus on crimes that have victims. This does not have a victim.” And so that’s happening in some places.
The easy fix would be to do what other states have done and create some sort of driver’s license that people who don’t have legal status in this country are able to obtain. Chicago, Illinois has that kind of license. A lot of the East Coast and West Coast states have that. So I think that would be an option. It’s a tough sell in a state like Wisconsin where Republicans control the legislature and illegal immigration is such a hot-button issue. Nobody wants to be seen as being soft on illegal immigrants. I’m using their language here.
So I think that’s the way forward, but I don’t see it happening right now given the way districts are drawn. Advocates have been changing their strategies in recent years and realizing that they really have to win over Republicans and rural communities where dairy absolutely depends on undocumented people. And so they’ve been doing the work of just lots of one-on-ones with these folks. It has not been a successful strategy to just do marches in Madison and say, “Undocumented people have the right to drive.” That’s not convincing Republicans in rural Wisconsin. But what might convince them is hearing from dairy farmers that their workers need to be able to drive legally.
Charles T. Brown:
Maybe farm owners can convince business-minded politicians that undocumented workers need driving rights. Wisconsin dairy farmer, Hans Breitenmoser, shares what he thinks about the situation.
My name is Hans Breitenmoser. I live in Merrill, Wisconsin, and I am a dairy farmer. As an employer, if somebody comes here looking for a job, my obligation is to ask for their paperwork that says that they’re here legally. They give it to me. I take it at face value. I put in all the information into my computer and I say, “Welcome aboard.” And that’s where my obligation stops. But it’s sort of an open secret in agriculture that there are a lot of “undocumented” people that work in this industry.
When you look at driver’s licenses, it should be a fairly nonpartisan issue because this is something that impacts everybody, right? All of our insurance rates are higher when the insurance world knows that there’s umpteen million people driving up and down the road that haven’t been taught how to drive on those roads and that aren’t insured. The insurance company doesn’t care if you voted for a Republican or a Democrat in the last election. So it speaks to the safety of everybody, you and me and our children and our parents on the road.
So that should be nonpartisan. But unfortunately, it’s one more thing that has become partisan, and it has largely to do with the fact that the Republican establishment, and especially with their connections to business, understand that it makes sense for people to have driver’s licenses if they can pass a test. But there is also the harder right that is convinced that allowing people to get driver’s licenses only encourages more of this unruly hoard to cross the border and we’re somehow rewarding people for being here illegally and all such nonsense.
There’s no big sign at the US-Mexico border that says, “Okay, come at your own risk. But by the way, you’re not going to get a driver’s license.” And there’s not bunches and bunches of people down there looking at that sign going, “Well, I was going to risk everything and leave everything behind, but this is the last straw. I can’t get a driver’s license, so I guess I’ll just stay home.”
Charles T. Brown:
Even though there are several law enforcement officials and politicians who understand the gravity of the problem, the ability to change things ultimately lies with the state legislature. According to Hans, the way that Wisconsin’s voting districts have been laid out is the reason why undocumented people still cannot get driver’s licenses.
Wisconsin is arguably the most gerrymandered state in the United States. In the state of Wisconsin, we’ve got one-party rule. Now, yes, our statewide elections, lately we’ve elected Democrats into office, attorney general, governor, et cetera. But when it comes to our legislature, the gerrymandered lines have it so that it’s impossible to get Democrats elected.
If you can arrange the maps to basically guarantee your majority, then the elections happen in the primaries, not in the general election. And if the election happens in the primaries, then those folks who are running as Republicans, their job is to run as far to the right as possible because they know who their voters are. And if you’re running as far to the right as possible and you do something that upsets the far right, then you get primaried, and somebody even farther right, gets elected next time around. And so that means the incumbent always wins if they make sure that they pander to the base because if they get primaried, it’ll be from the right, and the primary election is the election because the Democrat isn’t going to win.
It’s a little wonky, but that’s how it works. And so what we’re dealing with here when we talk about driver’s licenses in this issue is that while my representative might want to listen to logic and can see the facts before him and can understand them, he also has to be very, very careful because somebody can spin this issue and say, “That guy let all those bleep bleep illegals have driver’s licenses and blah, blah, blah.” So it’s not coming from the business community part of the Republican Party. It’s coming from the sort of red, super confederate, close the borders, send them all home. Those are the people that our representatives are having to worry about. Those are the people whose votes they need in order to stay in office, and that’s why we have the system that we have.
Charles T. Brown:
This conversation fits into a long history of American racism. It’s no secret that gerrymandering has been used effectively for voter suppression along racial lines in the South. The practice also brings to mind how banks have historically used redlining to perpetuate racist lending practices and prevent Black Americans from upward economic mobility. And when we talk about agricultural workers of color, specifically immigrants of color whose rights are not being protected, it feels historically familiar.
I really hesitate to use the word slavery, but I hear it from other people who interview me or who read the stories, either this one or others, and they’re like, “This is modern day slavery.” And I mean, I must emphasize that people come here by choice. They’re not brought here against their will. But the conditions they encounter are not that far away from what we saw a couple of hundred years ago here with an entirely different group of people. They are stuck on these properties where they work 10 or 12 hours a day. They live 500 feet away from their bosses. They’re constantly being watched. Perfect police are surveilling them. They step foot off the property and they could get jailed.
The driver’s license issue, it’s not like an agricultural issue. It’s an immigration issue. But dairy workers are excluded from so many of the protections here, overtime, they can’t organize to form labor unions, minimum wage issues. OSHA doesn’t generally inspect farms with fewer than 11 workers even after people die, even after they drown in manure pits or are crushed by machinery or suffocate inside of grain silos. And it’s horrific.
And a lot of these exclusions were built into labor law as a direct result of Southern Congress folks not wanting to give those protections to the Black people who did domestic work and agricultural work, who not too long before then were enslaved. So there’s a really significant parallel there.
I do want to make it clear. People come here by choice, and that’s a huge distinction. But the conditions they encounter are not conditions that any of us can imagine for ourselves or for our children. We are better than that. But we somehow think that this group of people, because they came here out of their own free will, they want to be doing this and we as a country are okay with that for this other group of people.
Charles T. Brown:
It is imperative that we recognize the critical importance of addressing arrested mobility, not only for undocumented workers, but for all immigrants of color in rural Wisconsin and beyond.
By denying undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses and the basic mobility rights that come with them, policymakers perpetuate a cycle of vulnerability, exploitation, and isolation that affects not just individuals but entire communities.
Understanding and rectifying this issue is not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of fostering inclusivity, economic growth, and social cohesion. When we embrace the idea that mobility is a fundamental human right, we can pave the way for a more equitable and prosperous future for everyone regardless of their immigration status or the color of their skin.
I want to thank Melissa Sanchez, who laid the foundation for this podcast with her incredible work, along with Maryam Jameel. I also want to thank Tony Gonzalez and Hans Breitenmoser for lending us their expertise. On Patreon, we’ve posted two pieces of bonus content so far with much more on the way. Make sure to check it out and subscribe to support this show.
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