By Andrew Becker and Patrick Michels
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
Along a desolate country road in northeastern Wisconsin, Manuel Estrada speeds toward work in his rumbling silver Ford SUV. He’s running late for his predawn shift. And he’s worried.
His boss is counting on him; she’s been down a worker for a month. More than 400 Holstein cows stand blinking, waiting to be milked. His family needs the paycheck from his $11.50-per-hour job.
And Estrada, 30, hopes the police aren’t waiting for him, too.
Home Page Photo: Manuel Estrada, a farmworker from Mexico, speaks with his boss, Abby Driscoll, at her family’s dairy farm outside Manitowoc on July 25. Estrada is in the United States illegally and faces heightened anxiety over possible detainment and deportation under President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. (Photo by Darren Hauck for Reveal)
It’s a risk he runs regularly during his 15-minute commute from his home in Manitowoc to the 150-year-old family dairy farm where he’s worked for two years. While he hasn’t been a perfect driver since entering the country illegally 13 years ago, he has avoided any real trouble with police. From past traffic stops, he said, the police do know he shouldn’t be driving a car.
Estrada is an unlicensed driver, and the route passing through one of the top dairy-producing counties in the nation is his pressure point. If he’s picked up by police, he could have an even bigger worry than a traffic ticket.
The larger fear
“What I am afraid of is the separation of family and being separated from my kids,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t worry specifically about Trump, because I know that I’m not a criminal.”
But he is in the country illegally, and that’s what matters under President Donald Trump’s agenda to ramp up deportations. Estrada’s boss, Abby Driscoll, said she can’t imagine the dread that Estrada and other employees face each day not knowing whether they’ll make it to or from work.
Even as she celebrated Trump’s win last year as “the lesser of two evils,” Driscoll tried to reassure anxious employees after the election, telling them just to stay out of trouble. In her mind, immigration and border security should be back-burner issues for Trump.
“I was expecting some things to happen when I voted for Trump,” she said. “As far as all of his immigration policies, I guess I wasn’t expecting it to go as far as it did already.”
The immigrant worker quandary
These are strange times in America’s Dairyland. Wisconsin voters gave Trump the electoral bump he needed to claim the White House in the 2016 election, the first time since 1984 that a Republican presidential candidate won the state.
As the country struggles to bridge divides along political, economic and cultural lines, Wisconsin is a patchwork of opinion, policy and practice when it comes to how local officials deal with immigration.
Voters in Manitowoc County, where Estrada lives, overwhelmingly favored Trump. Police officials say they focus on responding to local crime, not enforcing federal immigration law.
Dairy production – one of the state’s largest industries and the core of its Cheesehead identity – is heavily dependent on immigrant workers. However, farmers who grow seasonal crops such as blueberries can bring temporary workers into the country under the H-2A visa program, but the dairy industry does not qualify because cows must be milked year-round.
Harder to find dairy workers
Driscoll and some others say the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown is making it harder to find workers. Dairy farmers say few if any U.S. citizens apply for these jobs.
Long-time conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes has only recently come to understand fully how complex the situation is. It didn’t fully dawn on Sykes – an affirmed Trump basher – until late in his talk-show tenure just how entwined the state’s dairy industry was with illegal immigration.
“This is not an economy that is being damaged by illegal immigrants,” Sykes said. “We’re really being kept afloat by it.”
As a 17-year-old, Estrada crossed into the United States from Mexico and ended up in Manitowoc “on a whim.”
Farm work came naturally to him — he grew up on ranches — and he was hired quickly. As the demand for workers grew, he picked the jobs he liked best. And then he met his wife, Jennifer, and her four children from a previous marriage.
A fluent Spanish speaker born and raised in Wisconsin, Jennifer saw her family split apart when her then-husband was targeted in an immigration raid and deported to Mexico. She tried to make it work by moving the family south of the border, but soon returned to Manitowoc with just her four children in tow.
Estrada’s fight to keep their growing family together — they have a 3-year-old son together — is also her battle, which she has broadened to include rallies, marches and speeches. In her view, the issue comes down to basic issues for all families, such as the price of milk.
“If we don’t want to end up paying $10 for a gallon of milk we need to start protecting our workforce and our community,” she said. “These are people in our community that are living in fear.”
At a rally in June, on a rainy morning at the state Capitol in Madison, Estrada strode to the microphone and introduced himself. He, his wife and others from across the state had come to protest a proposed anti-sanctuary law that was pending in the state Legislature.
“They call this the dairy state, but it’s thanks to the strength of the immigrants,” he told the crowd.
The Estradas have been married for more than a year and have applied with the Department of Homeland Security to adjust Manuel’s immigration status. They feel confident that the government will grant them what they want.
But with the Trump administration, nothing is assured. The president is seeking to further restrict even legal immigration by supporting a Senate bill that would radically change qualifications for who can enter the country, emphasizing educated and skilled workers over the unskilled.
If immigration agents do come looking for her husband or other dairy workers, Jennifer Estrada has a plan. She has helped organize a team of two dozen people who have agreed to house and shelter people at risk for deportation.
A different approach
In Sheboygan County, about an hour south from Manitowoc, Daniel Guerrero takes a different tack. On the dairy farm he co-owns, the dozen workers all live on the grounds to avoid contact with police. When they need to go to the grocery store or the dentist, he drives them. When he takes a vacation, he brings some with him.
Originally from Mexico, Guerrero came to this farm almost 20 years ago. The farm has prospered, growing from 300 cows to a herd of 2,000. In that time, he said, only one American job seeker has applied.
“He lasted for two hours,” Guerrero said. “It’s too hard for him.”
For now, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ farm policy
A few minutes before 4 a.m. in Manitowoc County, as giant industrial fans spin along a barn wall — the whirling blades creating their own music as they push cool air toward the cows and calves inside — Estrada begins his day.
He efficiently moves about his job, hosing down mats, pulling towelettes out of a drying machine and prepping a refrigerated milk vat and compressor.
He hasn’t had a real day off in about a month as the Driscolls’ search for a new employee stretches on and on. Estrada had even quickly returned to work after a cow stomped on his hand. He paid the emergency room medical bills out of his own pocket.
Driscoll said she wishes it wasn’t this way. She’d like to hire legal workers and U.S. citizens. She doesn’t blame employees such as Estrada for living in the country illegally, either. She applauds him for trying to adjust his immigration status through his wife.
For other employees, she does what she needs to verify that they can work legally in the country, but otherwise has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“We definitely realize that, you know, we are maybe turning a blind eye to it that some of these workers are in this country illegally,” she said.
And Estrada doesn’t really blame Driscoll for voting for Trump. However, he did warn her after the election that she could be milking the cows by herself if Trump does what he says he wants to do.
Alexandra Hall of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) contributed to this story, which has been edited from the original version written for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. It was distributed by the WCIJ (www.WisconsinWatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, 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.
Andrew Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Patrick Michels can be reached at email@example.com. Alexandra Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.