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December 13, 2013

When most people discuss Wisconsin’s stake in the immigration debate, they think of the migrant workers in the dairy industry. And with reason: forty percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farm workers are immigrants, and yet, the current U.S. immigration system doesn’t offer a low-skilled year-round visa to legally employ them long-term. Add to this the fact that some policymakers want to focus on enforcement-only bills first—including mandatory e-verify—and the entire dairy industry could be threatened.

Dairy farms are hugely important to Wisconsin’s economic base. They contribute directly over $26.5 billion annually, and indirectly to other sectors of the economy such as machinery, fuel, and financial services. Wisconsin is the nation’s second-largest dairy producer after California, with about 11,500 of the nation’s 51,000 U.S. dairy farms, and its share of the industry has been on growth trends since 1950. Farmers argue that the price of milk doesn’t offset the steady increase of operational costs, such as feed, equipment, and labor. And fewer people are willing to work on the farms. The Chicago Council has worked with farmers in Wisconsin through its immigration initiative and found that they are passionate about “the care of their workers, land, and animals,” and hopeful that policymakers will recognize their struggles while negotiating immigration legislation.

What may be more surprising, however, is that the lack of immigration reform is also affecting Wisconsin’s urban areas, not just rural ones. During my recent visit to Madison, Mayor Paul Soglin convened a roundtable with city council members, Hispanic and Somali immigrant community leaders, and several youth. They immediately asked when the DREAMers (young unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children) would be able to go to college and pay in-state tuition. Or have the right to apply for citizenship. Or stop fearing deportation at every turn. One boy pleaded to learn more about rumored tracking devices being placed on the ankles of unauthorized immigrants facing deportation. Brought to the United States as young children, they know of no other home than Wisconsin. Why are they being punished? Do we not want them to be educated and successful members of our society?, they asked.

The Mayor is compassionate for their situation and mindful of the changing demographics of his city, noting that while Madison’s overall population has grown from 170,000 in 1980 to 233,000 in 2010, the minority population grew by over 57 percent from 2000-2010 alone. In 2010, minorities made up 18 percent of the total population compared to 13 percent in 2000. The Hispanic population almost doubled from 13,400 to 26,400 during the same period.

But he is also at a loss of what he can do from his office in the absence of federal immigration reform. Even offering driver’s licenses or in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants are decisions that can be made at the state level, but not municipal. (Ironically, I had also reached out to the governor’s office for a meeting with any willing body but was told that since immigration is a federal issue, no one in the office dealt with it.) The Mayor does what he can, such as supporting grants that go to social service organizations for immigrant communities and welcomes guidance from other cities that are developing creative immigrant integration policies while waiting for Congress to act.

My visit to Madison ended with a presentation on The Chicago Council’s Immigration Initiative to the Madison Committee on Foreign Relations, a globally minded group of civic, business, and academic leaders. While they meet monthly to discuss major global issues such as food security, Syria, and the rise of China, they were all deeply interested in how our nation is considering immigration legislation that keeps us competitive in a twenty-first century global economy. Professors were baffled that offering a greencard to graduates of U.S. universities in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is still being debated. Community college administrators argued that today’s native-born youth aren’t developing the skills needed for manufacturing and technical jobs. A former foreign service employee shared stories of foreign investors eager to start a business in the U.S. but couldn’t get the necessary visas. This well informed audience knew that the global order has shifted how our society works, and seemed hopeful that our policymakers would implement policies that reflect our new reality.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…and your labor force,” quipped one of the attendees. Admitting he had always thought of immigration reform from a moral standpoint, he found the economics equally compelling.

The people I met may not have been Fasting for Families in Washington, but were all adamant that this should be an immediate priority for Congress. Farmers, city leaders, professors, students, businessmen and advocates all wondered, “if it is good for business, the community, the economy, and public opinion supports passing immigration, why the delay?”

Juliana Kerr is director of the immigration initiative at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Relevant reading:

A View from Wisconsin The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Immigration Reform Vital to Wisconsin Bioscience. Bryan Renk. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. September 16, 2013

Wisconsin: Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Innovation, and Welcoming Initiatives in the Badger State. Immigration Policy Center. September 5, 2013

Inside Wisconsin: Wausau, Wisconsin in Thick of Immigration-Reform Debate Tom Still. Wisconsin State Journal. August 17, 2013

We Need Immigration Reform Enrique E. Figueroa. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. April 27, 2013

Seeking Workers, Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Call for Immigration Reform. Rick Barrett. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. January 27, 2013

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