By Alexandra Hall, Wisconsin Public Radio
DURAND — 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.
Home page image: Miguel Hernandez, left, along with co-worker Pedro Tepole, center, and Eric Hernandez, his cousin, build a make-shift structure on the back of Miguel’s pickup truck on May 31, to help carry their belongings to Mexico as Miguel’s five-year-old son Thomas watches. Hernandez, Tepole and three other western Wisconsin dairy workers left for Mexico the next morning.
Every so often, Luisa Tepole, 25, carries a suitcase or packaged appliance out of the house, handing it to her husband, Miguel Hernandez, 36.
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’s brother, Damaso, who also works at a western Wisconsin dairy farm, said many workers he knows plan to leave” because they’re scared of the government.” He added that “they can’t get around comfortably any more because they’re scared of getting taken and deported.”
He went on to observe: “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, because a lot of people are fleeing for precisely that reason.”
For a report on economic issues buffeting the Wisconsin dairy industry, click here to see Eric Lindquist’s article in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram
In Pepin County for 16 Years
Hernandez has been working on the Knoepkes’ farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He shared this home with his wife and two young sons, Thomas, 5, and Liam, 4.
Earlier in the day, at Thomas’ last day at Noah’s Ark Preschool in Durand, he cried as he told his classmates that he will not be starting kindergarten with them in the fall. He has never been to Mexico.
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 U. S. farmers eager for their help.
They moved here to 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, year-round. 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.”
Increased Enforcement Efforts
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 said. “We’re relyin’ on it and what it does for Wisconsin and our economy.”
Although there are temporary visas for seasonal farm workers, year-round workers who make up the vast majority of the labor force at Wisconsin’s large dairies have no such protections, and many are in the country illegally. Unless Congress changes that, Knoepke said, 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-WI) 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 hasn’t yet received a hearing.
In contrast, a Republican-sponsored bill in the Wisconsin Legislature would bar local governments from prohibiting the enforcement of federal or state laws relating to illegal immigrants as well as actions to ascertain whether they have a valid immigration status. The bill would also require political subdivisions of the state to detain immigrants in compliance with lawful orders to issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
In further contrast to Johnson’s proposal, the federal budget proposed by Trump contains a provision that would withhold funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” – jurisdictions that refuse to work with federal agencies to enforce immigration laws.
Arrests up in the Midwest and Nationally
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 time period in the previous two years under President Barack Obama. However, it is lower than the same time 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. In Trump’s first 100 days, the number of non-criminals arrested by ICE more than doubled from the same period last year, from 4,372 to 10,934. What that means is that people who come into contact with ICE may still be arrested, even if they are not being sought by the agency.
“That’s what they call ‘collaterals,'” said Wendy Feliz, spokeswoman for the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council. “We’re gonna pick you up because you’re undocumented and we’re here anyway.”
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 said.
Specific Targets or Sweeping Raids?
Implementation memos issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security earlier this year expanded ICE’s target from individuals convicted of serious crimes to those charged with even low-level offenses. The memos also direct that no one in the country illegally is exempt from deportation.
A farmer in Wisconsin’s Trempealeau County, who asked not to be named because he fears reprisals from immigration authorities, said ICE agents who visited his farm this spring looking for a particular person warned him they knew the rest of his employees were also undocumented and that they would be back. A worker who spoke to Wisconsin Public Radio at another farm in Pepin County shared a similar report.
Experts say, however, there is no evidence of the type of sweeping raids carried out near the end of the George W. Bush administration.
ICE may be under pressure from businesses not to run intensive operations in fields or factories where many undocumented immigrants work, Capps said.
“If they were to take a bunch of agricultural workers, or even if they were to scare a large number of agricultural workers away, that could have a bad impact on the local economy,” he said.
‘They’re coming after us’
As rumors circulated that ICE had visited Durand, four other dairy workers decided to join Hernandez, whose reasons for leaving include returning to see his ill father. He said he always knew he would someday return to Mexico, and he and his friends determined it was best to go now — organized, relaxed and with a plan.
“It’s better to go back home because of the laws — they’re coming after us,” said Luis Mendez, 32, who milks cows and helps out as a mechanic at the Knoepke farm. “It’s better to go willingly and be with the family rather than getting deported.”
If you are deported, he said, “You take the clothes you’re wearing … and that’s it.” But with a planned departure, Mendez says, immigrants can keep their belongings and money.
Still others, like Hernandez’s brother Damaso — who has lived in the United States for 17 years — are staying, but the situation could change at any moment. He said he thinks about the effect of leaving on his four children, who were raised in Wisconsin.
“My kids are very accustomed to life here,” Damaso Hernandez said. “The truth is, I don’t know what type of life they would have over there. Would they adapt quickly or . . . ,” he trailed off. “What scares me most is the adjustment. . . life is different over there.
“Now that (Miguel) is leaving, I’m asking myself, ‘And you, when will you leave?'”
May 31 – working until the last day
At this hour, everyone on the farm is an immigrant from Mexico.
For Hernandez, today is just like any other workday over the past 16 years, except that it is his last. He does not want to work today, but his bosses say they really need the help. He opens and closes metal gates, shoo-ing cows in and out of the milking parlor, and sweeps piles of manure and feed off the floor of the barn.
Tepole is excited. She has not been back home in the 11 years since she first came to the United States. Her parents have never met their grandchildren, and her mother is happy they are coming home.
Hernandez knows his decision to raise his children in Mexico will affect their future, especially when it comes to education.
“It’s a huge difference in school here compared to the school in Mexico. I think we are a lot behind in Mexico, but … it is what it is,” Hernandez said, shrugging his shoulders.
When Hernandez told his boss he was leaving, he was offered more money to stay. The farm owners even offered to buy a trailer for the other workers so he and his family could live in the house alone. But Hernandez turned it down.
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, drove away in the direction of their mountainous hometown of Texhuacan. A few days later, Tepole and the children flew out of Chicago.
Four or five people have applied for Hernandez’s job, but none has worked out, according to herd manager Henry Yoder. Knoepke said he probably will need to promote from within.
Hernandez said the farm owners want him to come back legally if that ever becomes possible.
“They are waiting for the government to do something. . . so they can bring people with papers or with visa, but they are just waiting,” Hernandez said. “You don’t even know if it’s gonna happen.”
Alexandra Hall joined the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in January, 2017 as the second Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow. Hall focuses on reporting investigative stories that are broadcast on WPR and distributed by the Center.
Photos accompanying this story, unless otherwise indicated, were taken by Coburn Dukehart of the WCIJ.
This story is part of Wisconsin Public Radio’s State of Change: Water, Food And The Future Of Wisconsin project. It was jointly produced by WPR and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.