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Immigrants debate threatens Wisconsin

Matt Pommer

The immigration debate swirling among Republican presidential candidates worries the dairy industry in Wisconsin.

A substantial part of the hard labor on those farms — especially the large ones — is provided by Latino workers. Many of these workers lack papers and are here illegally, as the politicians are quick to say. These workers do the "grunt work" that other Americans are slow to take.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has proposed that workers without proper immigration permits be sent back to their native countries. The "good ones" would be let back into the country, according to some of Trump’s rhetoric.

The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that 76,000 people in Wisconsin lack immigration papers. It estimates 48,000 work outside the home. Those working on large dairy farms would be difficult to replace.

John Rosenow, who operates a large dairy farm near Cochrane in Buffalo County, notes the animals must be milked twice a day and the barns must be cleaned. His warning was spelled out in an interview in the Guardian magazine.

"Of course, his proposals, as he (Trump) mouths them, would put us out of business and it would put most dairy farmers in the state out of business," he said.

A decade ago, Rosenow helped found Puentes/Bridges, a nonprofit that helps farmers visit Mexico and learn to speak Spanish. Rosenow says about half of the workers in his operation are Mexican.

The importance of the issue is not limited to just those who own or work on the dairy farms. It has been estimated that one in every nine jobs in Wisconsin has some of sort of tie to the dairy industry. Much of Wisconsin’s milk is converted to cheese and that leads easily to its large role in production of frozen pizzas.

Clearly, Wisconsin has different agricultural economics than Iowa, where corn seems to be king. But Iowa also has large meat processing plants that require workers willing and able to do the required heavy lifting jobs.

As September started, Trump held a substantial lead in polls measuring presidential politics in Iowa, which will be the first state to select delegates to the presidential nominating conventions next year.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is among the 17 announced candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. He has bounced around the immigration issues, taking three different positions in one week.

Walker needs a good showing in Iowa to have a chance. But then, there is the dairy industry situation in Wisconsin. Dairy organizations have spoken out against Trump’s immigration plans.

Against that background, a late summer poll by the Marquette University Law School showed Walker’s support slipping among Wisconsin citizens. There is a "substantial falloff in his support," said poll director Charles Franklin. The decline was noticeable in rural areas and urban areas across the western and central parts of the state.

Some 56 percent of those polled outstate disapproved of Walker in the latest Marquette poll, according to Franklin. Last year in a similar poll, only 41 percent in outstate Wisconsin disapproved of the governor.

Matt Pommer, a retired reporter for the Capital Times, writes a column distributed by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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