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Dairyland struggles as workers return to Mexico

Miguel Hernandez, left, talks with his wife, Luisa Tepole, about what to load into their pickup truck as they prepare to return to their hometown in Mexico. His cousin, Eric Hernandez, and co-worker Pedro Tepole, right, help to load the truck a little after 8 p.m. on May 31, 2017. Miguel and Pedro had already worked a full-shift on the Knoepke's dairy farm in Pepin County, Wis. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

DURAND — In the driveway of a two-story house on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, five men focus on a construction project. Using a drill, hammer and nails, plywood and rope, they fashion a structure resembling a corral in the bed of a Honda pickup.

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 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 said, referring to the movie about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl migration 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.

Hernandez has been working on the Knoepkes' farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He shares 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 cries as he tells his classmates that he will not be starting kindergarten with them in the fall. He has never been to Mexico.

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, drive away in the direction of their mountainous hometown of Texhuacan. A few days later, Tepole and the children fly out of Chicago.

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 illegal immigrants.

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 milkers long ago.

And now, they are going home.

"Miguel has been our right hand," Knoepke said. "He treated (the farm) like he owned it. We're really saddened, scared. I don't know. It's sad."

In the Trump administration's first 100 days, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Midwest 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.

There are temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers, but year-round workers who make up the vast majority of the labor force on Wisconsin's large dairies have no special protections, and many are in the country illegally. Knoepke said Congress "better do something ... because (workers) are leaving. You see it right here. They're packin' up."

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."

"It's strange, it's difficult because all the Hispanic people knew the Americans here in Wisconsin were supporting Donald Trump," he said. "I think they made a mistake, because a lot of people are fleeing for precisely that reason."

Arrests up in the Midwest

ICE figures show arrests in the six-state Midwestern region including Wisconsin are rising since Trump took office. The agency reports that arrests in the Chicago region rose to 2,599 between Inauguration Day and April 29, the first 100 days of the Trump administration. That figure exceeds arrest totals from the same period in the previous two years under President Barack Obama. However, it is lower than the same 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.

Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that analyzes the movement of people worldwide, said there can be a "pretty substantial lag" between arrest and deportation. Factors include whether the person contests the deportation or has a prior removal order reinstated.

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.

Nationwide, the number of non-criminals arrested by ICE in Trump's first 100 days more than doubled from the same period last year, to 10,934 from 4,372. In the Chicago region, for example, 778 of the 2,599 people arrested by ICE were not convicted criminals; last year, 500 non-criminals were arrested during the same period.

A farmer in Wisconsin's Trempealeau County asked not to be named because he fears reprisals from immigration authorities; he said ICE agents visited his farm this spring looking for a particular person warned him they knew the rest of his employees were also undocumented and they would be back. A worker who spoke to Wisconsin Public Radio at another farm in Pepin County shared a similar report.

"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 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 as a mechanic at the Knoepke farm.

If you are deported, he said, "You take the clothes you're wearing ... and that's it." But with a planned departure, Mendez said, 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 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."

Working until the last day

It is 7:15 a.m. May 31. As the sun peeks over the hills to the east, workers are in action. One drives a tractor through the fields while another steers a feed truck between two rows of cows. All the while, men in the milking parlor never stop moving. Some have been working since 11 p.m. and are just finishing their shifts.

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, shooing 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. "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.

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 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," he said.

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.

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