You might think immigration reform is an issue that impacts border states more than it does Wisconsin, but you'd be wrong.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism figures there are at least 5,000 immigrants working on Wisconsin's dairy farms as of four years ago. That's 40 percent of all dairy farm workers. Wisconsin's agricultural leaders say they need to be represented as immigration reform is discussed in Washington, D.C.
Jayme Sellen is the Government Affairs Director for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association; she recently spoke with me on immigrants working as labor on dairy farms.
Terry Bell: I think a lot of people might be surprised at the extent to which Wisconsin's dairy industry relies on immigrant work.
Jayme Sellen: I don't know if people would be surprised or not. We do have a workforce shortage in our industry that forces us to go and look for workers in other areas. We've tried to recruit employees through the traditional methods of newspapers, and online recruitment methods, and just haven't been able to attract quality employees.
TB: What's the difficulty in filling these jobs?
JS: You know, these jobs are just labor-intensive. It's hard work. Milking cows is not an ideal job for the next generation. And unfortunately, if people want to eat, and be able to go to the grocery store and buy reasonably priced dairy products, we need people to milk the cows.
TB: Dairy farmers used to have large families, and it was the kids who did a lot of this work, wasn't it?
JS: Well, yeah. The next generation doesn't necessarily want to be tied down to the dairy farm. They want to have a 40-hour-a-week job, and that's just not dairying. Like I said before, the cows need to be milked multiple times in a day, every single day. On Christmas morning, cows need to be milked and fed.
TB: What sorts of challenges do Wisconsin dairy farmers face when hiring immigrant workers?
JS: Every dairy farmer follows the correct I-9 procedures. They get the correct documentation. In order to bring somebody in now, you have to go through the unskilled labor program, which…there isn't a whole lot of slots for worker visas in that program, so the waiting list is very, very long in order to bring somebody in from another country. So there's a lot of bureaucracy, and it takes too long find employees, and the expense of doing it is pretty high — you have to have legal representation in order to maneuver through all the bureaucratic red tape.
TB: So as federal lawmakers and the president figure out what to do about immigration reform, what do you, as a representative of Wisconsin's dairy industry, urge them to take into consideration?
JS: Well, we definitely need a guest worker program that meets the need of the dairy industry, which is a year-round program. There are currently seasonal programs for the harvesting of fruits and vegetables, and that just doesn't work…
TB: It doesn't work for dairy, does it?
JS: Doesn't work for dairy, correct. It's good for three or four months, but like I said, dairy is year-round, we need workers every single day. So a guest worker program that would allow a dairy producer to bring in an individual from another country to work here legally for year-round is what we would hope to see, and there have been indications that such a program would be put into immigration reform legislation.