Wisconsin’s Dairy Industry Relies on Undocumented Immigrants, but the State Won’t Let Them Legally Drive
Undocumented immigrants in the state can own and register their vehicles, but they aren’t allowed to drive them, forcing many farm workers to risk fines and arrest. “It’s a Catch-22 for a lot of folks,” advocates say.
12:01 AM EDT on August 7, 2023
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on ProPublica. We're sharing it with our readers for its deep intersections with the conversations about traffic safety and mobility justice that are at the core of Streetsblog's coverage. It is republished with permission.
Central Wisconsin’s Clark County is home to more dairy farms than any other county in the state, which bills itself as America’s Dairyland. Its identity is so tied to the dairy industry that a 16-foot-tall, black-and-white talking Holstein stands outside downtown Neillsville, the county seat.
To corral the cows, milk them and clear their manure at these dairy farms — the dirty, dangerous work that makes this multibillion-dollar industry go — farm owners here and across Wisconsin rely on a labor force that they know is largely undocumented.
But the state makes it almost impossible for workers to have lives outside the farm without breaking the law. In Wisconsin, undocumented immigrants can own and register their cars and trucks, but they aren’t allowed to drive them. Those who drive anyway are pulled over again and again and again, and issued tickets that eat away at their wages.
The law banning undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses has cascading effects across the state. Law enforcement officials say the roads are less safe because undocumented immigrants aren’t trained and tested on basic driving rules but they drive anyway — and often without insurance. Court officials say tickets for driving without a license overwhelm their dockets and drain their limited resources. Farmers say they have to build or find employee housing to help their workers avoid getting ticketed.
The workers, many from remote, impoverished communities in Latin America, are grateful for the jobs. And yet they feel trapped.
They are people like a 33-year-old Nicaraguan who came to Wisconsin two years ago after hearing from friends that it was easy to find work on “los ranchos,” as dairy farms here are known by Spanish-speaking workers. He lives with three other Central American men in a small, white house owned by their boss that sits a few miles down a county road from the farm.
One afternoon in March, as the worker drove a roommate’s Jeep to the grocery store, a Neillsville police officer ran a random check of the license plates. The officer learned that the Jeep’s registered owner didn’t have a driver’s license and pulled him over.
The worker told the officer he didn’t have a license, records show, and the officer issued him a $200.50 citation.
“A day’s worth of work, lost. It hurts,” said the man, who routinely works 14-hour days.
Over the past year, ProPublica has interviewed more than 100 undocumented current and former dairy workers — in farm breakrooms, in the trailers and apartments where they live, in the shops where they wire money home, and at courthouse cashier’s windows where they pay their tickets. They said they are isolated and stuck on the farms where they work and often live. They struggle to get to grocery stores, to their children’s schools and to immigration court hearings. They delay medical care.
So they either rely on others who, for a price, drive them where they need to go, or they break the law and take their chances.
“You can’t call Uber because there isn’t any. You can’t take the bus because there aren’t any,” said John Rosenow, a dairy farmer in western Wisconsin who has become one of the most prominent advocates for immigrant workers in the state. “The closest barber shop is 15 miles away. The closest grocery store is 25 miles away.”
Making matters worse, the punishments for repeat offenses can escalate in severity, exposing workers to stiffer financial penalties, criminal cases and jail time. In counties that have formal agreements with federal immigration authorities, the threat of deportation hangs over every police stop.
What’s happening in Clark County and across Wisconsin is the result of Congress’ failure to figure out what to do about the millions of undocumented immigrants who live here and work in industries that, like dairy, unabashedly depend on them. That leaves state lawmakers to craft legislation to try to address the consequences — or to ignore what’s happening, punishing immigrants in the process.
Wisconsin is home to about 70,000 undocumented immigrants, mostly from Latin America, according to estimates from the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. These are the people who hang drywall, clean hotel rooms, wash dishes in restaurant kitchens and package the nation’s cheese.
Determining how many of Wisconsin’s dairy workers are undocumented is almost impossible. Workers use fake papers to get jobs, farmers accept those papers without question, and the state and federal governments make little effort to get an accurate count. But a conservative estimate from a recent University of Wisconsin at Madison study puts the number of undocumented Hispanic workers on medium-to-large farms at roughly 6,200. That figure excludes the many immigrant workers on smaller farms, those with fewer than 500 cows.
Advocates for immigrants have worked for years to persuade lawmakers to give undocumented immigrants driving privileges, as 19 states — most of them blue — have done. But those efforts have been unsuccessful in Wisconsin, where legislative districts have been drawn to favor Republicans. Few GOP lawmakers have been willing to support any such efforts; political observers say the lawmakers don’t want to look soft on immigration.
So local communities are left to look for their own solutions.
In one county, officials have been quietly conducting a pilot driver’s education program aimed largely at undocumented immigrants who were caught driving without a license. They are reluctant to speak publicly about it out of fear that any attention will lead to conservative backlash.
Elected district attorneys in several counties have stopped bringing criminal charges against people caught driving without a license; both Democrat and Republican prosecutors say they want to dedicate their limited resources to crimes with victims.
And in four counties in southwestern Wisconsin, community advocates worked with local law enforcement agencies and dairy farmers a few years ago to create identification cards that workers could show officers during traffic stops to prove that they worked in the area and, potentially, keep those encounters from escalating.
“It did not prevent them from getting a ticket, but it prevented them from being handcuffed and hauled off to jail,” said Shirley Barnes, the recently retired co-director of the MultiCultural Outreach Program in Dodgeville. “The fact is, all the police officers in all of these counties know exactly where these people work. They know it is local farmers who are employing these people.”
One morning in May, a former dairy worker from Honduras slid into a courtroom bench in the Clark County Circuit Court in downtown Neillsville and waited for his name to be called. His 16-year-old son sat next to him, missing school to serve as his father’s interpreter. ProPublica is identifying the man only by his first name, José. Like other workers in this story, he asked not to be fully identified because he is undocumented and fears being deported.
A month earlier, a state trooper had pulled José over for driving 15 mph over the speed limit on U.S. Highway 10. In addition to issuing a speeding ticket, the trooper had cited him for driving without a valid license.
“We just enforce the law,” Sgt. Brandon Gray, a spokesperson for the Eau Claire post of the Wisconsin State Patrol, said in an interview. “If they don’t have a valid license, then obviously they receive a citation.”
José said he regrets speeding. But he said it’s impossible for him to comply with the license requirement.
“It makes me so damn sad I could cry,” said José, who said he came to the U.S. two years ago to better provide for his son. “I have to drive. Nobody else is going to come to support my son. Nobody else is going to pay my rent.”
José left court with his son after paying $200.50 for driving without a license and another $175.30 for speeding. José drove home, still licenseless.
Of the 35,000 people who live in Clark County, just 6% are Hispanic, according to census estimates.
Yet last year, 187 of the 245 cases that were brought in this court for operating a vehicle without a valid license — or more than 75% — involved Hispanic drivers, according to data compiled for ProPublica by Court Data Technologies, a Madison company.
A similar trend is playing out in circuit and municipal courts across the state, ProPublica found. (Citations for this charge can go to either type of court if it’s a first-time offense; circuit courts also handle repeat offenses, which can become criminal cases.)
Roughly half of the 16,000 circuit court convictions for driving without a valid license involved Hispanic drivers, according to the information provided by Court Data Technologies from cases filed in 2022.
The actual percentage is likely higher, since Latin American immigrants are often marked as “Caucasian” in court records; José, for example, is listed this way.
Hispanic residents make up less than 8% of the population.
“Those numbers are alarming,” said Primitivo Torres Martinez, deputy director for statewide civic engagement for Voces de la Frontera, the state’s largest immigrant rights advocacy group, who learned of the statistics from ProPublica. “The thing is, farmers need [immigrant workers] to drive, so it’s a Catch-22 for a lot of folks.”
Police and the courts don’t track the immigration status of drivers. But across the state, people involved in nearly every step of the traffic enforcement process — police, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, interpreters and other circuit and municipal court officials — agreed that most Hispanic drivers who get ticketed for not having a license are undocumented immigrants.
Records from these cases routinely describe drivers who show Mexican or Nicaraguan identification cards to police, don’t speak English and need an interpreter, or tell officers they can’t get a license because of their immigration status. You can see them in courthouse lobbies, glancing hopefully around for an interpreter when the clerk offers to use Google Translate on her phone, or sitting anxiously on courtroom benches, wondering whether they will end up being deported.
Thousands more tickets for driving without a valid license were processed last year in the state’s roughly 230 municipal courts. These courts operate independently from each other and, as a result, there is no one single place to get case information that would allow a statewide analysis of those courts.
But ProPublica obtained data from about a dozen municipal courts and found that, over and over, Hispanic drivers received a substantial share of these citations.
In Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the tickets. In Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, 49 percent. In Manitowoc, along Lake Michigan, 58%. In each of these places, Hispanics account for 20 percent or less of the population.
The numbers appear to be starker in municipal courts farther from metropolitan areas. At the Marshfield Area Municipal Court in central Wisconsin, for example, 69% of these tickets issued by the Marshfield Police Department went to Hispanic drivers, records show. Less than 3% of Marshfield residents are Hispanic.
It’s a similar story in Sparta, a small town surrounded by dairy farms in western Wisconsin. Sparta’s municipal court does not track defendants’ race or ethnicity, but ProPublica found that 91 of the 131 tickets issued last year for driving without a valid license — or about 70 percent — involved defendants with common Hispanic surnames like Cruz, Cortez and Gonzalez. (The U.S. Census Bureau says that more than 85% of people with those last names are Hispanic.) Fewer than six percent of residents in Sparta are Hispanic.
Mention the subject of tickets in a tiny Mexican grocery store there and the tired dairy workers in line will nod their heads with familiarity and indignation.
“I’ve been pulled over probably 15 times,” said one man, a longtime dairy worker from Mexico. Sometimes, he said, it’s the same police officer who pulls him over. “They recognize me immediately and call me by name, saying, ‘I told you not to drive,’” the worker added. “But I have to drive to get to work.”
Most Hispanic immigrant drivers don’t bother to contest the tickets, they simply pay in cash, said Andrea Ziegler, Sparta’s municipal court clerk. Altogether, Hispanic drivers in Sparta paid more than $8,400 in tickets issued last year for not having a license, records show.
“I don’t think it’s right. If you’re going to ticket them, then you need to provide a path for them to get a license so they can work, so they can continue to contribute to our society,” Ziegler said.
“Our farms would not be able to survive without them.”
When we asked farmers about their employees’ immigration status, they told us they merely accept the paperwork that applicants hand them.
But over the years, the dairy industry has tacitly acknowledged its reliance on an undocumented workforce. At the federal level, it has tried unsuccessfully to gain access to an immigrant guest worker program. Closer to home, dairy farmers have become powerful allies of Voces de la Frontera in its campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
Almost a dozen dairy farmers across Wisconsin told ProPublica they wish their workers could get licenses.
In one sense, their motivation is economic. Many farmers say they would like to ensure their employees can get to and from work without police stopping and ticketing them. Several described the calls they’ve received in the middle of the night from workers who needed a ride after they got locked up. “If they throw them in jail, they’re no good to us,” said one farmer in western Wisconsin.
Farmers said they are also motivated by empathy.
“It’s basically a human need issue,” said Randy Roecker, a third-generation dairy farmer who runs a 275-cow operation in Sauk County, in central Wisconsin. “They need to be able to drive to go get groceries, the bank, the doctor, but yet they feel they can’t because they’re afraid they’re gonna get picked up all the time.”
Like many other farmers, Roecker and his family decided to build employee housing when they expanded their operation and hired their first immigrant workers in 2006.
That was the year Wisconsin lawmakers banned access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Some dairy workers who were in the state at the time still keep their expired licenses in their wallets in the hope that the old documents may help them avoid tickets in traffic stops.
The change in the law was a response to the federal REAL ID Act — a post-9/11 law sponsored by then-U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican — which standardized the type of identification that could be used to board planes and enter federal buildings. To comply, Wisconsin and other states began to require proof of U.S. citizenship or other legal status to obtain licenses.
From the beginning it was clear the law would hurt undocumented immigrants living in states that let them drive. For some lawmakers, like Sensenbrenner, this was a good thing; he told reporters at the time that Wisconsin had become a “mecca for illegal aliens” seeking driver’s licenses.
Latino lawmakers and advocates said banning these immigrants from driving would cause more problems than it would solve. Bernard Trujillo, then a law professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told The Capital Times that if Wisconsin denied immigrants driver’s licenses, “they will just drive without it.”
“This is the ‘If I close my eyes, I’ll make them go away’ approach to treating the undocumented, which is ineffective as a policy matter,” he added.
On a frigid evening in February 2021, John Rosenow stood outside his dairy farm in Cochrane, in western Wisconsin, and watched as a longtime employee got pulled over on his way into work.
A Buffalo County sheriff’s deputy had been parked in front of the farm observing traffic on a stretch of county road where the speed limit is 35 mph. The deputy noted later that he saw a car moving at a “slow rate of speed,” then ran the license plate. The records check showed that the car’s owner didn’t have a license, so the deputy pulled it over.
Despite a language barrier, the worker was able to tell the deputy he didn’t have a driver’s license but showed his Mexican identification card. The deputy told him that he’d be getting a ticket in the mail and warned him not to drive without a license.
Because it was the worker’s second citation in three years, he was charged with a misdemeanor in Buffalo County Circuit Court.
To Rosenow, the traffic stop looked like racial profiling. He wrote a letter to the judge in the case.
“Certainly, the court can understand how important Juan and other Mexicans are to the agricultural and food processing industries in our area,” Rosenow wrote. “Harassment by the Sheriff’s department does not help make our community any safer.”
That argument didn’t sway the judge. The worker, who has since returned to Mexico to be with his family, pleaded guilty and paid $443 for the ticket and mandatory court costs — including a DNA test, a requirement in criminal cases. The total amount was equivalent to about five days’ take-home pay.
In a statement, Buffalo County Sheriff Mike Osmond declined to comment on the traffic stop but said he understood the concerns about potential racial profiling. But he said that his deputies “enforce traffic laws impartially, without discrimination based on race or ethnicity” and that his office is “committed to upholding the constitutional rights of all individuals, regardless of their immigration status.”
Across Wisconsin, dozens of undocumented immigrants who have been stopped and ticketed solely for not having a license told ProPublica they believed they were the victims of racial profiling.
Among them: the 33-year-old Nicaraguan man who was pulled over after a random plate check as he drove to the grocery store in Neillsville this spring. “How did he know I didn’t have a license?” he wondered. “I hadn’t committed any infraction but got pulled over.”
In an interview, Neillsville Police Chief Jim Mankowski said he would support letting undocumented immigrants get licenses as a way to make the roads safer and to help officers more quickly and accurately identify people they encounter.
But he said random plate checks can help officers discover violations that are tied to the registered owner of a vehicle, from suspended or revoked licenses to outstanding arrest warrants. He said officers should have a reasonable suspicion that the person driving a vehicle is its owner; for example, if a plate check determines the owner is a man who doesn’t have a license, it wouldn’t make sense to pull the vehicle over if a woman is driving.
He added, “If it’s a tool that can help my cops do their job better, that’s something that we have to embrace.”
Records from law enforcement and court cases across the state show that, in many communities, sheriff’s deputies and police officers routinely run the license plates of passing vehicles — regardless of the racial or ethnic background of the driver — and pull people over if they discover a violation. But the issue of not having a license hits Hispanic drivers the most.
One of the underlying factors is the contradiction in state policy that allows undocumented immigrants to register their cars but not drive them.
“They put a bullseye on them,” said Tony Gonzalez, an immigration rights advocate in north-central Wisconsin. “The state collects the money on registration and there is no benefit for that registrant. It’s like taxation without representation.”
A spokesperson for the state transportation department said the agency “implements the laws as written.” The spokesperson could not say how many vehicles are registered to people who do not have driver’s licenses.
Getting pulled over after a random license plate check by police is so common that many undocumented immigrants have turned to a black market for protection: Several people who spoke with ProPublica described paying someone with a license to register a vehicle under their name to help avoid getting pulled over. One man, a home construction contractor in a Milwaukee suburb, said that once he started registering his car under his company’s name instead of his own, he stopped getting pulled over and ticketed for not having a license.
Similarly, a dairy worker in Jefferson County, in southern Wisconsin, said he felt “like an ATM” for police after paying thousands of dollars over the past few years in fines and court costs resulting from not having a license. Then, he said, he heard of someone in another community who, for a price, would register his car under their name.
It has been worth the money, the worker said. He hasn’t been pulled over since.
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