LATINO VOICES
02/19/2016 08:27 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2016

The Fight Over Immigrant Workers Heads To Dairy Farms

"Everybody knows Wisconsin is cheese land, and cheese comes from milk and milk comes from cows, and these cows are taken care of by Latinos."
Thousands of dairy workers protested anti-immigration bill proposals in the state capital, Madison, that could have a huge im
Credit: Carrie Antlfinger/AP
Thousands of dairy workers protested anti-immigration bill proposals in the state capital, Madison, that could have a huge impact on the industry if passed.

Two anti-immigration bills on the docket in Wisconsin could have serious trickle-down effects on the state's famed dairy industry and force many workers to abandon the region, a rights group has warned.

The proposed measures prompted nearly 50,000 people to protest across the state on Thursday, shuttering business and emptying classrooms to signify what the industry would look like in their rally, called A Day Without Latinos And Immigrants.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of immigration rights group Voces de la Frontera, said the protests showed people "very clearly flexing their economic power" as a prime piece of a $43 billion dairy industry. It's estimated that more than 40 percent of workers on dairy farms are Latino, according to a University of Wisconsin study, and some 90 percent of those come from Mexico.

"For a while now, the state Republican Party has maintained a heightened anti-immigrant position," said Neumann-Ortiz, noting that Wisconsin experienced some of the worst redistricting in local history in 2011. "Now we have a very narrow base of voters that does not represent the majority opinion of Wisconsin."

Coupled with the ongoing build-a-wall demagoguery in the current GOP presidential campaign, she said the latest legislation proposals have ignited a large Latino community that fears social progress may soon be taken away.

If passed, Senate Bill 533 would limit the government's ability to issue ID cards to undocumented immigrants. Assembly Bill 450 would reallow public employees to question someone's citizenship status in certain areas and eradicate "sanctuary cities" that help shield undocumented workers.

Hundreds of protesters pack the rotunda at the Wisconsin capitol on Thursday.
Credit: Greg Moore/AP
Hundreds of protesters pack the rotunda at the Wisconsin capitol on Thursday.

German Sanchez, a nine-year veteran of the state's dairy farms, said many people don't realize the importance of Latino workers in the industry. The work may be blue-collar, but it requires a high level of skill and a work ethic that mandates you tend to the cows even when weather dips down to 30-below.

"If this bill passes, it would cause a lot of fear in our communities," Sanchez said. "Everybody knows Wisconsin is cheese land, and cheese comes from milk and milk comes from cows, and these cows are taken care of by Latinos."

The Dairy Business Association told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal it opposed the legislation and some farmers have expressed worry over having enough workers to take care of their cows.

Sanchez said that he and several coworkers left their dairy on Thursday to head to Madison with the blessing of the farm's owner, who understands the importance of Latinos' contributions. But the industry is also important to them, and Sanchez said that most Latinos enjoy the work and don't want to be forced out of the state.

Similar measures to those proposed in Wisconsin have been passed in states like Arizona and Alabama, to dire consequences. In both cases, once the laws were passed, workers left, devastating local economies and leaving a void in the workforce.

Neumann-Ortiz warns that could "absolutely" happen in the state and the people of Arizona got what they wanted, an unwelcoming environment and the end of a Latino workforce.

"Shops closed, homes were boarded up. That's been the reality, the creation of refugees from these policies," she said.

Now, the proposals lie with the legislature and may wind up on the desk of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), who espoused his new anti-immigration policy last year.

Neumann-Ortiz said the recent protests have raised the consciousness of the debate, and time will tell how friendly Wisconsin will be to the Latino community.

Sanchez said somebody has to keep making noise about the importance of immigrants in the community.

"When you drink milk, enjoy it," he said.

It might be harder to get if there's no one to take care of the cows.

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