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Nativism Will Be Front And Center At First GOP Debate. But Offstage, Immigrants Are Backbone Of Wisconsin’s Famous Dairy Industry

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The first 2024 Republican presidential debate is set to take place this week, with former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and drug company executive Vivek Ramaswamy all qualifying for the event (though Trump’s involvement remains up in the air because he’s refused to sign the loyalty pledge required to participate; most assume he will not participate). 

Candidates have already been previewing their anti-immigrant plans in an attempt to win the night. That nativist bluster may play well within the confines of the Fox News-hosted debate. But across Wisconsin, industries like dairy rely on immigrants. It’s an open secret that many of these essential workers also lack legal immigration status. Without them, the state’s famous dairy industry “would collapse,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2019.

“Reliable numbers on immigrants working in the dairy industry are hard to come by,” the outlet reported. One survey taken in 2014 by the National Milk Producers Federation estimated that just over half of Wisconsin’s dairy workers are immigrant-born. Earlier this month, ProPublica said one conservative estimate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison estimated that roughly 6,200 undocumented immigrants work at larger farms. Because the study excluded small farms, the total number could be even higher.

Statewide, immigrants are critical to the state’s economy, contributing billions of dollars in local, state, and federal taxes annually. According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants paid $2.5 billion in taxes in 2019, while their spending power totaled more than $7 billion in the state. Nearly 200,000 immigrants are in the state’s labor force, specializing in fields ranging from software development to agriculture.  

“Talk to workers in Wisconsin, and they express little doubt immigrants account for a larger portion of the dairy industry workforce today,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel continued. In fact, “[s]ome farmers say they haven’t encountered a U.S.-born applicant in years.” 

Despite the fact that these workers are essential to a vital industry in the state, Republicans there have refused to help implement laws that, in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, could help immigrant workers – and their employers – in their day to day lives. Driver’s licenses, for example, would allow them to drive legally and get to and from their jobs. Wisconsin advocates, led by Voces de la Frontera, have been pushing for driver’s licenses to be restored after the state legislature revoked them in 2007, including holding massive “Day With An Immigrant” protests, but have so far been unsuccessful due to GOP obstruction. 

Essential iImmigrant workers are paying the price for this inaction. ProPublica said that in Clark County alone, more than 75% of citations for driving without a license involved Hispanic drivers, likely many of them immigrants and many undocumented.

Republican candidates will take the stage on Wednesday pushing an immigration vision that has taken a rapid descent since Trump descended his golden escalators and began to push all GOP candidates to the extreme in opposing immigration. So while he won’t be in Milwaukee that night, nativism will still be occupying the debate stage front and center. Rather than offering workable and humane solutions to our broken immigration system, the proposals from candidates have been a race to the bottom, from advocating for the return of inhumane border policy, to waging war within the border of our neighbor Mexico.

States like Georgia have found out the hard way what happens following passage of anti-immigrant laws that actively harmed their local communities and economies. 

”Georgia Farmers Say Immigration Law Keeps Workers Away,” NPR reported following the passage of the anti-immigrant H.B. 87 in 2011. “Crackdown on illegal immigrants left crops rotting in Georgia fields, ag chief tells US lawmakers,” the Associated Press reported the same year. “The Law Of Unintended Consequences: Georgia’s Immigration Law Backfires,” Forbes said, also in 2011. That piece acknowledged the not-so-secret secret that undocumented workers are a part of the human engine that drives the agricultural industry. 

DeSantis should be pressed on this by moderators, after he signed into place the most anti-immigrant law of any U.S. state in more than a decade. The law was meant to pad up his résumé, but his presidential campaign is instead flailing as immigrant workers have fled the state over its harsh and cruel provisions. Floridians could be jailed for driving an undocumented person into the state, even if it’s a loved one. DeSantis has also called for violence at our border with Mexico. “If cartels are trying to run product into this country, they’re going to end up stone-cold dead,” he recently told an Iowa crowd.

One Florida Republican who actually supported the DeSantis proposal S.B. 1718 subsequently held town halls practically begging workers to stay. “‘We are losing employees,’ he said during the gathering, video of which was widely shared,’” Miriam Jordan reported for The New York Times. “‘They are already starting to move to Georgia and other states.’” Wisconsinites should be careful before they end up going down the same self-destructive path.