Immigrant workers leaving state’s dairy farms

by Alexander Hall
Wisconsin Public Radio
& Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism


THOMAS HERNANDEZ, 5, hugs his friend Brayden Patnode, after the graduation ceremony for Noah's Ark Preschool at Assumption Catholic School. Brayden's mom, Jennifer Patnode, left, had just learned the Hernandez family was moving to Mexico, and that Thomas would not be back at school the following year. – Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism THOMAS HERNANDEZ, 5, hugs his friend Brayden Patnode, after the graduation ceremony for Noah's Ark Preschool at Assumption Catholic School. Brayden's mom, Jennifer Patnode, left, had just learned the Hernandez family was moving to Mexico, and that Thomas would not be back at school the following year. – Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism In the driveway of a two-story house on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, five men focus on a unique construction project. Using a drill, hammer and nails, plywood and rope, they work together in the afternoon sun to erect a structure that resembles a makeshift corral in the bed of a Honda pickup.

Every so often, Luisa Tepole, 25, carries a suitcase or packaged appliance out of the house, handing it to her husband, Miguel Hernandez, 36. Hernandez makes quick decisions about what can fit in the truck and what his family can live without when they begin their new life in Mexico, placing each item just so for the long trip back across the border.

By the end of the night, the back of the truck is piled high with bags of clothes and shoes, TV sets in boxes and a bucket of children’s toys, ready for the 2,300-mile drive to Veracruz, Mexico.

Farm owners Doug and Toni Knoepke watch Hernandez and the other workers from a few feet away as they load their two-truck caravan. It looks like a scene from “The Grapes of Wrath,” Doug Knoepke remarks, referring to the movie about the mass migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s.

Only this time, it is in reverse: The migrants are leaving a land abundant with economic opportunity for an uncertain future in their homeland.

Hernandez has been working on the Knoepkes’ farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He shares this home with his wife and two young sons, Thomas, 5, and Liam, 4.

The house, where they live with several other workers, is so close to the barn that from their back door, the rhythms of Mexican Cumbia music can be heard coming out of a speaker in the milking parlor.

Earlier in the day, at Thomas’ last day at Noah’s Ark Preschool in Durand, he cries as he tells his classmates that he will not be starting kindergarten with them in the fall. He has never been to Mexico, and his teacher pulls out a map to show the students where it is in relation to the United States.

On June 1, Hernandez and four other men, who for years have milked and cared for cows on dairy farms among the hills of western Wisconsin, drive away in the direction of their mountainous hometown of Texhuacan. A few days later, Tepole and the children fly out of Chicago.

The Hernandez family is leaving, in part, because of the threat of deportation — which could ban them from returning to the United States for 10 years — and what they describe as increasingly harsh rhetoric by President Donald Trump and others toward immigrants, especially those here illegally.

Like many immigrant dairy employees in Wisconsin, the workers in the caravan have stories about walking through the desert to cross the border illegally, coming to work for farmers in the United States eager for the help.

They ended up here in America’s Dairyland, the nation’s top cheese state and No. 2 milk producer, attracted by a dairy industry dependent on undocumented immigrant labor to keep cows milked three times a day, yearround. They have raised their children in communities where American workers stopped answering “help wanted” ads for cow milkers long ago.

And now, they are going home.

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

In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Midwestern region increased over the previous two years.

In Wisconsin, farmers like Knoepke depend heavily on workers like Hernandez. Seeing him and the other workers leave worries this first generation farmer with 650 cows.

“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.”

In May, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced a bill that would let states create their own visa programs for foreign workers. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, which supports the measure, Canada and Australia have similar programs. Four dairy associations endorsed the proposal, but it has not yet received a hearing.

Hernandez’s brother, Damaso, who also works at a western Wisconsin dairy farm, says many workers he knows are considering whether to stay or go. As a candidate, Trump declared that the United States was a dumping ground for drugs and criminals from Mexico. He promised sweeping deportations and to build a wall between the two nations.

“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 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.”

Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Wisconsin since 1984.

ICE figures show arrests in the six-state Midwestern region including Wisconsin are rising since Trump took office, Wisconsin Public Radio has learned.

The agency reports that arrests in the Chicago region rose to 2,599 between Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, through April 29, the first 100 days of the Trump administration. That figure exceeds arrest totals from the same period in the previous two years under President Barack Obama. However, it is lower than the same period in 2014, when there were 3,033 arrests.

Nationwide, ICE arrests totaled 41,898, about 35 percent higher than last year but lower than the 2014 figure of 54,584.

Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that analyzes the movement of people worldwide, says there can be a “pretty substantial lag” between arrest and deportation. Factors include whether the person contests the deportation.

“And that lag can be anywhere from a few days — if they have a prior removal order that’s simply reinstated — to several years, if they decide to contest their deportation and they’re let out of detention on bond,” Capps says.

The Trump administration is working to pressure local law enforcement agencies and governments to help federal authorities identify and arrest undocumented residents. The president’s budget proposes withholding funds from socalled “sanctuary cities,” jurisdictions that decline to work hand-in-hand with federal agencies to enforce immigration laws.

In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that allows local police officers to question individuals about their immigration status when they are detained or arrested. It also penalizes local officials who do not cooperate with federal immigration agents by handing over people subject to deportation. Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have proposed a similar bill.

Implementation memos issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security earlier this year expanded ICE’s target from individuals convicted of serious


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