E-Verify Pro or Con?
Immigration battle lands in the heart of rural America
By Georgia Pabst of the Journal Sentinel
New Holstein - As daylight breaks, David Geiser is already in
the barn of the Gold Star Dairy farm tending to more than 300 head of
Holsteins on his sprawling farm.
father and grandfather, Geiser has lived and worked on this farm,
founded by his Polish and German immigrant ancestors, all his life. Next
year the farm will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Reinhart, whose Quaker ancestors were dairy farmers in Pennsylvania,
works alongside her husband as the farm business manager and also cares
for the young livestock. The couple raised three sons, who are now grown
and gone to other careers and other locales.
But Geiser and Reinhart remain.
"This is our
life," Reinhart said. "It's who we are and what we do. The dairy
mentality is deep in my soul. Everything David and I have is tied up in
Now they find
themselves caught up in the contentious immigration battle that
stretches from the halls of Washington to this quiet rural landscape and
Wisconsin's signature industry. They worry that proposed legislation
that would require all employers to use a new system - called E-Verify -
to confirm employment eligibility could jeopardize their livelihood.
About four in 10 dairy farm workers are immigrants, many believed to be undocumented.
"If E-Verify passes, it will kill the dairy industry in Wisconsin," Reinhart said. "I'm scared to death."
bill, or Legal Workforce Act, was introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Lamar
Smith (R-Texas), who framed it as a jobs bill saying illegal immigrants
are taking jobs from Americans who need them.
an electronic, Internet-based system operated by the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. It checks
Social Security numbers to determine whether a person can legally work
in the United States.
it's optional, but Smith's bill would make it a requirement, and there
could be criminal penalties for employers. The agriculture industry
would have three years to implement the system.
unemployment at 9%, jobs are scarce," Smith said in a statement when he
introduced the bill. "Despite record unemployment, 7 million people work
in the U.S. illegally. There is no other legislation that can be
enacted that will create more jobs for American workers."
U.S. Rep. Jim
Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said: "Individuals
come here illegally because they know they can find work outside our
immigration system. By making E-Verify mandatory, we will ensure
employers are hiring American workers and legal immigrants."
But the bill has strong critics.
Civil Liberties Union notes the system as it stands has an error rate of
2% to 3%. That means hundreds of thousands could be denied work because
of errors, said Chris Calabrese, ACLU's legislative counsel.
National Milk Producers Federation said the bill is "undesirable"
without comprehensive immigration reform, or a visa program that would
allow dairy farmers to hire immigrant workers.
current system, employers must fill out and keep on file what are called
I-9 forms, which contain information that shows the employee is
eligible to work. But it's not the employer's responsibility to verify
The shift to E-Verify, which puts the onus on the employers, worries Reinhart and Geiser and other dairy farmers.
years ago when the couple couldn't find enough local workers to help
them milk the cows around-the-clock, 365 days a year, they started
hiring Mexican immigrants. Reinhart said she believed what she called
the "new wave of immigrants" would continue the American story of
arrival, hard work, settlement and assimilation - like their own
For a while
things were OK. But as immigration has grown into a political lightning
rod, Reinhart and Geiser, like other dairy farmers in Wisconsin and
across the country, find themselves in a delicate situation when it
comes to their critical labor needs and those they hire to do the work.
scared. We might be breaking the law, but we don't know it," Reinhart
said. "We would never, ever break the law, but it's close. All we're
trying to do is manage a business and feed the world, and here we find
ourselves in a terrible kettle of fish."
41% of workers foreign
The Gold Star
farm, which employs six workers, isn't alone in looking to immigrant
labor in the dairy state. A 2009 study by Jill Harrison, an assistant
professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of rural
sociology, found that immigrants - primarily Mexicans - make up 40% of
dairy employees in the state
national survey sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation
found that 41% of the farms surveyed relied on foreign-born workers.
study points to the cultural and demographic shifts in which many rural
young people leave the farm for the city and elsewhere. Reinhart said
she thought that with joblessness so high there would be more local,
what she calls "traditional workers," but that's not been the case.
Applicants want weekends off, or have health or other problems that
limit their work, she said.
workers have become so valuable because they work hard, they're
dependable and they work well with the dairy cows, she said.
repetition, continuity and boredom, and we want them treated the same
all the time," Reinhart said. "If not, they won't give milk. They will
get scared and maybe fall and hurt themselves. That's why consistent and
stable labor is so important."
Carlos Jimenez, 27, the milking parlor manager at Gold Star Dairy Farm,
has been working at the farm for five years. He came here from Mexico
with a stop in California. The work is hard, and there are long hours -
about 10 hours a day, he said in Spanish. He now makes $11.25 an hour.
to like the job," he said. "It's routine, but you get used to it. You
have to be calm, and you have to leave your moods and problems outside.
You can't treat the cows badly. You have to be calm."
Although many might consider the work unskilled, it's not like digging ditches, Reinhart said.
equipment to run, milking equipment to learn to use, feed to mix,
science-based practices, policies and procedures to follow, and animal
well-being to encourage, she said. That requires that employees get
trained, which takes time.
Farming is tough business
dairy industry drives a big part of the economy, contributing $26.5
billion a year, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Milk
Marketing Board. The average dairy cow generates more than $20,000 a
year, which is pumped back into the community and local businesses.
past five years, dairy producers and processing firms have invested more
than $2.5 billion to modernize farms, cheese plants and other
infrastructure in the state, according to the board. Some 99% of the
state's 12,700 dairy farms are family-owned.
is a tough business, said John Rosenow of Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy in
Waumandee, on the western edge of the state. He's become an outspoken
advocate for comprehensive immigration reform nationally because it's
needed to provide a stable, secure dairy workforce.
it's a fair statement to say that 60% of the milk that's harvested is
harvested by immigrants, and the vast majority are probably
undocumented," he said. "If they do E-Verify and follow up with strong
enforcement, it will kill the dairy industry that's been growing pretty
views are shared by fellow dairy man Tim O'Harrow of Oconto Falls. He is
politically the polar opposite of his longtime friend - though they
agree on this issue.
"As it is,
it's an unworkable situation," O'Harrow said. "What's more disconcerting
is that I'm proud to say I'm a Republican, and Republicans are the ones
who are trying to impose the cost of this upon employers who are the
ones that contribute to their re-election bids.
"Food is a cost and if we allow food to go offshore, like we have other products, we will become a second-class world power."
agriculture opposes E-Verify, a Rasmussen poll taken in May showed that
82% of those surveyed thought businesses should be required to use
E-Verify to determine work eligibility, while 12% opposed the
about the survey, Reinhart said she doesn't believe there's a good
understanding of how it would affect agriculture. That's why she said
she talks to groups and organizations about the dairy industry and its
Although the House has yet to take up the E-Verify bill, some states are going ahead on their own.
The U. S.
Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona's E-Verify law. Other states, such
as Georgia, Mississippi and Utah, have enacted their own E-Verify laws.
A commitment and a cost
dairy farmers Gordon and Cathy Speirs are Canadian immigrants hiring
Latino immigrants "with the U.S. in the middle," Gordon Speirs said.
In 2003 the
third-generation dairy farmer emigrated from Canada and started the
Shiloh Dairy Farms. They now have 200 acres and milk 1,450 cows with a
workforce that's 90% immigrants.
He and his
wife came on an investment visa based on their investing $1 million and
creating 10 jobs. Later, he said, he had to get green cards for himself,
his wife and their three children. Legal and other costs have totaled
about $100,000, he said.
"The reason I
have immigrant workers is not about the cost of paying them - we will
pay what they're worth - but the immigrant workforce has a commitment to
the job that you can't find in the local labor market," he said.
believes is needed is an agriculture jobs bill or comprehensive
immigration reform, but he's watched reform efforts fail under President
George W. Bush and now President Barack Obama.
While he doesn't believe E-Verify will kill the dairy industry, there will be a cost, he said.
"If we don't
have a workforce, it will decimate our ability to do our job," he said.
"Right now, dairy is the No. 1 industry in Wisconsin. If it catches a
cough, the economy gets the flu."
As he sees it, there a choice: "Your food will be produced by a foreign worker in this country or in another country."
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