In Wisconsin at least half the dairy farm workers are undocumented.
The smell is the first thing you notice on a dairy farm. John Rosenow’s farm sits just a couple bluffs away from the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin. Two spacious barns house the cows. Outside, the calves rest in long rows of individual huts.
The snow is finally melting after a long, wet winter. Everyone is smiling on the warmest day so far this year. Rosenow told a neighbor, “this is the beginning of being nice.”
Inside a large white building 18 cows file into the milking parlor where Marco, a young worker from Mexico, cleans udders, hooks up the milking machines and shovels manure.
"We sell about a semi load of milk a day, every day," Rosenow said.
Rosenow and his workers currently milk 550 cows around the clock. Not that long ago most dairy farms were small, family operated. But in the mid-90s dairymen like Rosenow realized shrinking profit margins and a better quality of life meant they had to get big or get out. Rosenow says it was difficult to find workers.
"I put ads in the paper or I tried to recruit people locally," Rosenow said. "And I just could not get anybody to apply, let alone have quality people apply."
When he heard about a company that connected workers from Mexico with farmers in the U.S., he called them up.
"Over the last 10 years I’ve probably had 150 people apply for jobs here," Rosenow said. "Two of them were Americans. They had a whole bunch of stipulations on when they could work and how they would work and what they would do. People say 'well, why don’t you just pay more?' Well, we do pay more than minimum wage by a long shot."
Rosenow pays between $27,000 and $40,000 a year along with health benefits and housing. Most farmers don’t provide health insurance. He currently has eight employees from Mexico. As to their legal status, he said he's been advised by his lawyer to look at the documents.
"And as a reasonable person I look at the documents and they look real I’m to accept them," Rosenow said.
Rosenow pulled out his federal employment forms — or I-9s. He said new employees from Mexico, who arrive usually after a brutal walk across the border and long bus ride, show him a Social Security Card and a green card. This is what he’d show federal officials if he were ever investigated. But it’s never happened. Rosenow is aware of only two farmers in the Midwest who have ever been audited by federal authorities.
Still, this reality leaves Rosenow vulnerable.
"My livelihood totally and completely depends on these people doing all this work," Rosenow said. "My retirement, everything would pretty much go out the window."
So for several years Rosenow has gone to Washington to lobby lawmakers for immigration reform that would include a way for people to get what he calls valid Social Security Numbers, so they could get driver’s licenses and passports. He says the current reform debate is the closest they’ve come, so he’s optimistic.
"Immigrant labor plays a critical role in the Wisconsin dairy industry and an even larger one across the U.S. especially in the western states," said Brad Barham, professor of agricultural and applied economics at University of Wisconsin Madison. "So they’re crucial to all aspects of our lives in terms of the way in which this economy works."
That’s why lawmakers have pushed for an expedited path to citizenship for farm workers in the latest immigration reform proposal in Washington. Under the Senate bill workers could obtain legal residency after five years.
But Alejandro is skeptical. He works at a Wisconsin dairy farm and didn’t want to use his last name. He said politicians say a lot of things and they don’t do anything.
"More than anything I want them to stop talking and do something for us," he said in Spanish.
Alejandro said he doesn’t want to stay in the U.S. forever. Instead he would like to travel back home freely. He has a 2-year-old daughter in Mexico whom he has never met.