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The US Immigration System Treats Workers as Disposable

Julie Keller

Countless sectors in the US, like the dairy industry, couldn’t run without undocumented workers. Yet those same workers are denied their basic rights and subjected to the constant threat of deportation — dehumanizing and terrorizing them while weakening the power of the broader working class.

A worker milks Holstein cows on April 16, 2020, at a dairy farm in Escondido, California. (Ariana Drehsler / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

In the course of researching her book, Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland, sociologist Julie Keller interviewed Henry, the owner of a large dairy farm in Wisconsin that employed ten migrant workers from Mexico. Henry (Keller uses pseudonyms for the subjects of her book) explains that he worked out an arrangement with local law enforcement through his nephew, an officer: if his undocumented employees, who are not eligible for drivers’ licenses in Wisconsin, would keep their grocery runs to before midnight, they would not be pulled over.

It’s a startling admission of nepotistic corruption, but it also highlights how the US immigration system is set up to deny immigrant workers rights and provide employers with a more exploitable labor force. If Henry could protect his undocumented workers from the law, the inverse was also implicitly true: he could subject them to it, especially if they fell out of his favor.

As in many other sectors of the US economy, undocumented immigrants have become essential to the dairy industry. Wisconsin, where Keller focused her research from 2011 to 2012, is second only to California in dairy production, with more than nine thousand farms — one-fifth of whose workers are thought to be undocumented. Yet they’re denied workplace protections, see their organizing rights trampled upon, and face the constant threat of deportation. The result: a dehumanizing system that terrorizes the undocumented while also undercutting the power of the broader working class.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Keller about the dairy industry’s reliance on undocumented immigrants and why both the state and business interests prefer porous — yet brutal — border security. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


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How much of the dairy industry workforce in Wisconsin is comprised of undocumented immigrants?

JK

In my book, I was relying on a study conducted in 2008, and that’s really the most accurate information we have. A full 40 percent of all hired dairy workers in Wisconsin are estimated to be immigrant workers. From there, it’s just a matter of how we estimate the proportion of that group that would be undocumented. The standard go-to is the national agricultural workers survey that’s conducted every few years or so, which assumes that 50 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented.

What I will say, though, is that because there’s no legal avenue for dairy workers to be in the industry, because they’re excluded from the temporary agricultural worker visa, I would expect that number would be higher than just 50 percent.

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Where do they hail from?

JK

That same study, which was conducted by the sociologist Jill Harrison and some other folks, did ask about country of origin. They found that, of the immigrant dairy workers that they had surveyed in Wisconsin, 89 percent were from Mexico, 3 percent from Honduras, 2 percent Ecuador, 2 percent Guatemala, and it just got smaller from there. So really the vast, vast majority come from Mexico.

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What kind of work do they do? In your book, you write that the labor regime is pretty caste-based, with certain workers doing certain work.

JK

It was quite unusual to find immigrant workers doing anything but the lower-tier tasks on the farm. Milking cows was the big necessity for employers. You’ll also see immigrant workers doing related tasks, like bringing the cows into the milking parlor to be milked or cleaning up the parlor and the barns, scraping manure.

If there weren’t jobs available as milkers, you would also see immigrant workers taking jobs feeding calves. From what I observed, it seemed like a stepping-stone to milking cows. But they were all low-level tasks.

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The growth of undocumented workers in Wisconsin’s dairy industry is a relatively new trend. When did it start?

JK

In my book, I discuss the time frame of the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, because that’s what I was hearing when I talked to farmers. Part of that kind of depended on whether they were one of the early adopters, maybe you’d say “pioneers,” who started to hire immigrant workers when hardly any other farmers were doing it. Those folks would definitely be more in the 1990s. And then, as word spread and other farmers began catching wind that this was an option, they would reach out to farmers who had done it to get advice — and to get workers, too.

Workers on a Vermont dairy farm. (Terry J. Allen / Flickr)
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Why specifically was it around the ’90s and the early 2000s? In your book, I believe you mention the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) having some role in driving workers to the United States, but also the growth of large-scale dairy operations that require more workers.

JK

I specifically focused on one part of Mexico, a group of indigenous villages in [the southern state of] Veracruz. There are two different sides to this: what farmers have to say about why they began hiring immigrant workers, and what workers had to say about what led them to leave their villages. There wasn’t a single worker who told me, “NAFTA, we’re experiencing the pressures of NAFTA” — they simply talked about economic need.

I linked that to other scholarship on the role of NAFTA and the economic pressures in Mexico in changing immigration patterns to the United States. You might have at first seen the majority of Mexican migrants coming from states closer to the border, but then, with the ripple effects of economic pressures from NAFTA and other financial pressures, eventually you saw folks leaving from other parts of Mexico, including Veracruz. Migration from Veracruz just shot up from the 1990s to 2000s.

From the farmers’ side, they definitely weren’t discussing anything about NAFTA either. Rather, they talked in terms of financial necessity to expand their operation, starting in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. In that expansion, they had to find a larger workforce.

What I found was that it was not just about finding more workers, but of finding different kinds of workers that they saw as more reliable to keep up with the speed of this newer, fast-paced expansion.

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How much of the characterization by farmers of American workers as bad and Mexican workers as good is really just a description of how much they can be exploited?

JK

There were degrees of it. Not every farmer said, “American workers are lazy.” But they would use particular words like, “They don’t show up,” or “They’re not as reliable.” And then it did go to the extreme, when one farmer said, “You know, these American workers expect to be getting $15 an hour.” (At the time, it may have been less.) I found that sort of characterization of American workers to be pretty common, against the characterization of Mexican workers as dependable, as reliable, as not saying anything when they’re asked to work long hours.

One farmer I talked to said, when she started hiring Mexican workers, “I’ve never seen the parlor floor look so clean. You could eat off of it.” For them, it was a boon. They had come upon a kind of miracle workforce.

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In Milking in the Shadows, you describe the cycle of undocumented immigrants traveling between their home villages in Veracuz, Mexico, and Wisconsin’s dairy farms as an “informal guest worker program.” How do both workers and employers organize these arrangements?

JK

What seemed to be happening was that, once farmers established a relationship with a worker, they were more willing to go out of their way to help that worker — giving them rides to places or loaning them money.

The pattern of circular migration that I saw was that migrants would arrive in Wisconsin, work at a dairy farm or a couple of dairy farms for a few years, and then return back home to Mexico, to their village, where they would work on investing the money they had saved in building a house or a business or something like that. Workers would then choose one of their family members to head up to the United States in their place: a nephew or uncle or whomever. The workers themselves were, in a lot of cases, responsible for finding their own replacements, which largely worked, it seemed, for the farmers.

But then there’s this question of how that uncle or nephew is going to come up to “the North,” and how they are going to be able to afford the journey — paying a coyote, a smuggler? What I did see was farmers lending money to workers in order to make that passage happen. It was not a gift, it was a loan, so that loan would be taken out of their wages.

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You summarize the work of fellow researchers when writing that “isolation is the effect of US immigration policies, as the state achieves its productive function of accumulating capital by constructing ‘ideal’ and ‘compliant’ workers by ‘deepening migrants’ condition of deportability.'” How is US immigration policy intended to make workers more exploitable?

JK

In so many ways, we see the state working hand in hand with business interests and keeping a group of workers vulnerable to satisfy business owners. There’s lots of ways to characterize the state, but I think that’s definitely the unstated goal of a lot of immigration policy.

I wish I had my hands on some data on length of stay of undocumented workers who had been traveling back to Mexico more frequently prior to Donald Trump and how their plans shifted after the Trump administration. Not to say there was no border enforcement under Barack Obama, but there was definitely a ratcheting up. I wish that I had been out there collecting data and talking to participants, but at that point, I was done collecting data and finishing up the book.

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Despite the threats to their livelihoods, undocumented workers in the dairy industry have been organizing. What are the most promising organizing efforts currently underway?

JK

Definitely Migrant Justice in Vermont and their “Milk with Dignity” code of compliance. It’s been phenomenal following their efforts and seeing how they’ve been able to achieve broad change in a few years.

It was just in 2017 that Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement committing to source their milk from farms that would comply with this code of ethics. Ben & Jerry’s is now sourcing their milk from sixty farms that have signed up for the “Milk with Dignity” program. It includes a long list of requirements to be part of that program, and if a farm is found not to be in compliance, they’re kicked out of the program, and they can’t sell their milk to Ben & Jerry’s. There’s also a new change in that code of conduct, which is a minimum wage that they are requiring farmers to pay.

Migrant Justice was working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as their model. It takes time, but we are seeing some efforts to replicate these successful models. There is Voces de la Frontera in Wisconsin. And there’s United Farm Workers on the West Coast. They’ve been trying to organize dairy workers for some time now.