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Immigration is a Tough Job Despite Ag Support

CHERYL TEVIS 05/09/2014 @ 1:23pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

It’s not the life that Shaun Duvall envisioned when she moved with her husband to the scenic small town of Alma, Wisconsin, in 1980. She was looking forward to enjoying the view from their home overlooking the majestic Mississippi River and perhaps teaching French for a few years.

In 1984, she was offered a job teaching high school Spanish. “A few years later, Extension ag agent Carl Duley came to me and asked if I’d be willing to help with translation issues between farmers and their new Mexican workers,” Duvall says.

John Rosenow was one of the first farmers to meet with her. In 1997, he and his wife, Nettie, had expanded their herd and formed an LLC with another farmer. They found it increasingly difficult to find help, and they hired their first Hispanic employees in 1998. “Labor always had been a limiting factor in Wisconsin,” he says. “Having a new source of workers was the beginning of the transformation of the dairy industry here.”

By 1999, Duvall and Rosenow had formed a nonprofit called Puentes/Bridges, Inc. (puentesbridges.com). She organized a trip to Mexico in 2001, accompanied by Rosenow and a handful of other farmers, to visit the home villages of their employees. Duvall quit teaching in 2004 and formed SJD Language and Culture Services to work full time with dairy farmers and their employees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Ten years ago, only 5% of workers on Wisconsin farms were immigrants. By 2008, that figure jumped to 40%. The Rosenows employ nine.

“They’re excellent workers and so much more capable than what we could find before,” he says. “They won’t leave unless they find good workers to replace them while they’re gone.”

Chris Weisenbeck, a Durand, Wisconsin, dairy farmer, agrees. When two Mexican men came to his farm looking for work in 1998, he was hesitant, but he needed reliable workers. After hiring them, he eventually traveled to Mexico with Duvall. About 150 other farmers have followed suit.

“I’ve been to the villages, and there’s no work,” he says. “They’re glad to work here. It’s frustrating as an employer to have very capable workers who have difficulty with their papers and getting driver’s licenses. I’d like legislators to understand the problems we’re having.”

There’s little evidence that Congress is listening. Hopes were raised in 2013 when the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and the House passed a few bills out of committee. Late last year, Rebecca Tallent, a veteran immigration advocate, was hired as the House speaker’s immigration adviser. Then reform efforts stalled out.

The issue of a pathway to citizenship is the most controversial provision. Yet, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center reveals that Hispanics feel it’s more important to work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation than to gain a path to citizenship: 55% to 35% (see graph).

While politicians in Washington, D.C., continue to spar about immigration reform, farmers and farmworkers are left to fend for themselves on the front lines.

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