Illegal immigration and WI dairy farms

Georgia Pabst of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a critical — and flawed — piece Saturday on E-Verify, the joint Dept. of Homeland of Security/Social Security Administration program that makes employers check the citizenship status of their workers. Right now, E-Verify is voluntary — but new legislation would make it mandatory. Pabst implies this would be bad for Wisconsin dairy farmers, the vast majority of of whom employ illegal immigrants. But it could have the positive effect of curbing the exploitation of these workers.

E-Verify checks the citizenship information given by employees against a database of Social Security numbers (DHS administers the program in cooperation with the Social Security Administration). Lamar Smith, the anti-immigration Republican lawmaker from Texas, has a bill in the U.S. House that would make E-Verify mandatory. As Pabst writes, nationally and in Wisconsin, 40 percent of farm workers are immigrants — mostly Mexican — and most employers probably don’t check their citizenship information. Pabst interviews New Holstein, Wisconsin farmer Deborah Reinhart, who basically admits that she doesn’t check to see if employees tell the truth when they claim to be in the U.S. legally.

Pabst plays up the hoary authenticity of family farmers, and points out that 99 percent of the Badger state’s 12,700 dairy farms are family-owned. But some farmers exploit the labor of people who don’t have papers. Reinhart says that part of the reason she employs immigrants is that non-immigrant applicants want weekends off and have health concerns. Meanwhile, the one immigrant worker Pabst interviews said that he does physical labor for 10 hours a day.

E-Verify has been popularized in the last four years not just by lawmakers like Smith, but also by the Obama administration as a humane alternative to immigration raids. Instead of raiding farms and detaining these ten-hour-a-day immigrant workers, E-Verify targets potentially exploitative employers. I’m skeptical of any major changes to immigration policy absent comprehensive immigration reform. But E-Verify is a relatively sensible policy. It is intended to target employers who take advantage of a broken immigration system by hiring non-citizens — people highly unlikely to report any labor law violations. Sometimes these exploitative employers are large meatpacking plants. But sometimes they’re family farmers.

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