Undocumented Farm Workers, Republicans, and Dismantling Toxic Partisanship

On May Day farm workers march to a Hannaford supermarket to protest the supermarket chain's refusal to purchase milk from dairy suppliers who have committed to a set of fair labor practices, May 1, 2022, in Burlington, Vermont. The campaign, organized by immigrant and migrant farm workers in rural Vermont, is called Milk with Dignity.

(Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Undocumented Farm Workers, Republicans, and Dismantling Toxic Partisanship

The us-versus-them mentality that is gripping our country doesn't capture our deep economic and social interdependence.

We're living through a daunting time in our national politics. Election denial, overt racism, and pernicious attacks on the pillars of civil society—from school boards to local election officials—accompany a general coarsening of discourse and increasing threats of violence. As we head toward the 2024 presidential election, authoritarianism looms.

And yet, in the middle of all this ugliness, as racist political advertisements connecting a Black U.S. Senate candidate to violent crime blanketed the airwaves in Wisconsin ahead of November's midterm elections, and giant Trump banners waved over cornfields in rural parts of the state, I found myself traveling to talk to groups of people about the unlikely friendship between farmers and undocumented immigrants. I felt the warmth among groups of voters, many of them Republicans, toward the undocumented Mexican immigrants who do most of the work on Wisconsin's dairy farms.

Despite all the ugly, anti-immigrant rhetoric flying around in this election year, stories like Tecpile's bring tears to the eyes of listeners—Republicans and Democrats alike.

Joining me at the University of Wisconsin's Eau Claire campus, and at the tiny public library in Wabasha, Minnesota, were some of the people whose stories I collected in my book, Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers.

John Rosenow, a dairy farmer from Cochrane, Wisconsin, was there with his employee Roberto Tecpile, who grew up in Astacinga, a tiny village in the mountains of Veracruz, in southern Mexico. So was Stan Linder, a dairy farmer from Stockholm, Wisconsin, who has been driving down to Mexico regularly for the last twenty years, taking van loads of other farmers to visit the families of their Mexican workers and to admire the homes and businesses the workers have built with the money they've made milking cows up north. Shaun Duvall, the high school Spanish teacher from Alma, Wisconsin, who first had the idea to take groups of farmers to Mexico, was there, too. So was Mercedes Falk, who now runs Puentes/Bridges, the nonprofit group Duvall founded to build cultural understanding between Midwestern dairy farmers and the Mexican workers who comprise more than half of the workforce on the dairy farms of the Upper Midwest.

One farmer, Chris Weisenbeck, describes his visits to the small villages of rural Mexico as stepping into a scene from his own past, when tight-knit rural communities were thriving. Watching a group of neighbors working to build a house together, he commented, "It's about neighbors helping neighbors and everybody working together. Small town Mexico, small town U.S.A.—same thing."

"It's an agrarian society," Rosenow explains. "They find working on a farm honorable, where most Americans don't consider working on a farm honorable. You'd take public assistance before you'd work on a farm."

At the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, after a panel discussion of my book, Tecpile and I spent a day speaking to classrooms full of students about the growing Mexican immigrant population in their area. In a couple of the classes, conducted in Spanish, Tecpile addressed the group directly, without a translator. It was elevating for him, speaking at a university, part of what he describes as his amazing journey of success.

He recalled how, when he was eight years old, he and his family were living in a wooden shack with a plastic tarp for a roof. A hail storm came and tore off the roof, pelting the family with hail as they huddled together. It was then, he said, that he promised his mother he would build her a better house.

Today, after working in the United States for twenty of his forty-three years, Tecpile has built a solid, cement-block house for his parents, and another one next door for his wife and children.

Despite all the ugly, anti-immigrant rhetoric flying around in this election year, stories like Tecpile's bring tears to the eyes of listeners—Republicans and Democrats alike. Most of the dairy farmers who rely on Mexican workers are Republicans. Republican politicians, taking their cue from Donald Trump, have become increasingly harsh in their attacks on immigrants this year. (Consider the political stunts by Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, respectively, who lured Latin American asylum seekers onto airplanes and flew them to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., in a mean-spirited effort to embarrass liberals in those sanctuary communities by shamefully manipulating bewildered families, treating them like human refuse meant to litter the beach and the White House lawn.) Yet many rural voters in Wisconsin have developed a sense of kinship with the undocumented immigrants without whom they would lose their farms and way of life. National politics don't reflect the full complexity of that reality.

There is so much wrong with our politics and our broken immigration system, which forces people like Tecpile—who are carrying the entire dairy industry, among other U.S. industries, on their backs—to work without the protection of a legal visa. There is no such thing as a year-round visa for low-skilled agricultural work in this country. Yet we have depended heavily on the year-round work of undocumented immigrants for decades. It's one of many cruel and unjust policies that make the workers who sustain U.S. agriculture, not to mention food service, construction, and hospitality, extremely vulnerable.

At the same time, rural Americans have become increasingly drawn to the politics of resentment, voting in large numbers for Trump and the election deniers and xenophobes who now run the Republican Party, out of a sense of grievance, abandonment, and fear.

Wisconsin is the number one state in the nation for farm bankruptcies. When President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, it accelerated the "get big or get out" trend in agriculture. We've lost more than half of our family farms in Wisconsin since 2004. The farms that stayed in business did so by expanding rapidly and hiring Mexican workers. Contrary to the rightwing canard about a "great replacement" of U.S.-born workers by immigrants, farmers in this area tried hard—and failed—to find Americans willing to take jobs milking cows and shoveling manure every day at 4 a.m.

Thus, two groups of rural people, from the United States and Mexico, were brought together.

There are many questions raised by their stories—about migration, labor, the demands of the global economy, and the human and environmental costs of massive consolidation in agriculture. But what stands out the most to me this year, as I travel around talking about my book, is the way the relationship between two groups of rural people who were thrown together by global economic forces beyond their control feels like an antidote to toxic partisanship.

The us-versus-them mentality that is gripping our country, pitting urban against rural, white against Black and brown, conservatives against progressives, doesn't capture the deep economic and social interdependence of U.S. farmers and undocumented Mexican farm workers.

Watching people who were moved to tears as Tecpile described his journey, I thought, what a difference it makes to meet people individually, to see each other's humanity, to imagine ourselves in someone else's place. And to realize that, ultimately, we are all in the same boat.

We're going to need a lot more of that in the years to come.

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