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Americans Don’t Apply, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer Says

Paul Fetzer is the fourth-generation owner of his family’s dairy farm, Fetzer Farms, which he operates with his brothers in Elmwood, Wisconsin. With 1,350 cows, the business requires 26 full-time employees, and today 18 of those employees are immigrants. “We’ll put ads out locally trying to attract American-born workers, and we just don’t hear anything back,” Fetzer says. “Meanwhile, immigrant workers approach us. At this point, some of our guys have been with us more than 15 years.”

Fetzer says the family business started relying on immigrant labor nearly two decades ago, when local workers began losing interest in the job, despite what Fetzer calls a fair, competitive wage for the region. “We start at $10 an hour, and that includes housing if you’re a single guy without a family,” he says. “Our budget for labor costs for the year is well over $1 million, so that’s a pretty good indicator that we’re paying a good, living wage to the folks that work for us.”

Most of Fetzer’s employees moved here from Mexico, and while he believes most of them are here with proper documentation, he admits that he can never be totally sure that the documents they present are valid. But when Fetzer considers their character and dedication, he has a hard time understanding how anyone can see these people as a threat to the nation or the economy. On the contrary, he says, he’d “hate to even think about” what would happen to his business should the federal government double down on deportations.

If you’ve been here, holding a job, taking care of your taxes, let’s keep those people here.

It’s not only that Fetzer Farms would be forced to downsize, the broader economy would be affected, as well. Wisconsin is home to 9,520 licensed dairy farms, 96 percent of which are family owned. Combined, these farms form the backbone of an industry that contributes $43.4 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. And they depend on foreign-born labor. Although immigrants make up just 4.8 percent of the state’s population, they comprise upward of 40 percent of the hired labor force on its dairy farms, according to a 2009 university study.

The National Milk Producers Federation estimates that without foreign-born workers, one in six dairy farms in the United States would not have the labor necessary to remain in business and would close, costing the country $32.1 billion in lost economic output and the loss of more than $200,000 other jobs, most of which are held by U.S.-born workers.

Fetzer notes that immigrants also help boost the economy by being here. In his congressional district alone, in southwest Wisconsin, immigrants, who make up 2.3 percent of the population, pay more than $100 million in taxes and hold $292 million in annual spending power, according to New American Economy research.

Fetzer would like to see immigration reform that addresses the labor shortages his industry is facing. He also wants immigrants who have been contributing to the economy — whether they’re here with documentation or not — to be given a path to residency and, ultimately, citizenship. “If you’ve been here, holding a job, taking care of your taxes, let’s keep those people here,” he says. “They’re helping us out, they’re helping our economy out. Let’s do something for them, and meet our jobs needs at the same time.”

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