Hundreds of immigrant rights advocates and others participate in rally and demonstration at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan on June 1, 2018 in New York. In coordinated marches across the country people gathered outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices, U.S. attorney’s offices, and the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).
Tim Michels, the construction company owner and Donald Trump’s favorite Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, has been having a hard time squaring his past and present views on immigration. Michels is taking fire from his main GOP rival after Dan Bice reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a group led by Michels fought against the get-tough approach to undocumented immigrants he now champions.
Michels has made cracking down on the people he calls “illegals” a centerpiece of his campaign. He brags in his TV ads about building a prototype for former President Donald Trump’s border wall. And he touts his “blueprint to stop illegal immigration,” including “no drivers’ licenses, no benefits, and no tuition.”
But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published documents showing that when Michels was president of the board of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association during the 2007-2008 legislative session, the group lobbied against a bill that would have prevented companies that hire undocumented workers from receiving government contracts, tax breaks or loans.
Michels’ campaign responded by saying he didn’t know about his group’s lobbying on the bill, which was ultimately killed.
Michels’ opponent, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, jumped on that claim, putting out a statement saying Michels “won’t take responsibility” for the conflict.
But Michels’ troubles expose a more significant problem with Republicans’ position on immigration.
Across the United States, employers in the construction industry as well as food service, hospitality and especially agriculture are heavily dependent on undocumented immigrant labor. All the racist immigrant-bashing you hear from Republican candidates like Michels is not just mean-spirited, it’s hypocritical. The Wisconsin road builders whom Michels led know they rely on undocumented immigrants. That’s why they opposed a bill that would take away lucrative contracts if they employed them.
For my new book, “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers,” I spent a lot of time with Wisconsin farmers who voted in big numbers for former President Donald Trump, but who also employ undocumented immigrants. By some estimates, undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico, now do 80% of the work on Wisconsin dairy farms. (Because there is no U.S. visa program for year-round, “unskilled” farm work, dairy workers, unlike seasonal farm laborers, are almost all working in the U.S. without documents.)
I traveled to Mexico with a group of farmers who go every year to visit the families of their workers. They expressed a feeling of kinship and pride in the success of the hard-working people from rural Mexico who have spent years laboring on their farms and built homes and businesses back in Mexico with the money they make milking cows.
These workers are carrying the economies of two places on their backs — rural Wisconsin, where they are doing the work that keeps our dairy industry going, and their rural villages in Mexico, where the money they send home rivals petroleum as a share of Mexican GDP, causing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to praise them as “living heroes.”
Most of the Republican farmers I interviewed for my book voted for Trump because they were upset about the North American Free Trade Agreement and other bipartisan policies that have accelerated the “get big or get out” trend that is killing family farms in Wisconsin. Trump’s attacks on Mexicans made them uncomfortable, but they hoped he would shake up a system that for too long has not done enough for rural people.
To their credit, members of the Dairy Business Association have worked with the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera to set up skeleton crews on their farms that allowed their workers to take time off for a Day Without Immigrants rally and lobbying day at the Capitol in Madison. The workers delivered milk bottles to legislators’ offices with the slogan “Got Milk? Not Without Immigrants.” Among the issues they lobbied on that day were the restoration of driver’s licenses — which Republicans in our state Legislature took away from undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin in 2007 — and the defeat of a bill that would turn local law enforcement officers into immigration police.
Lots of Republicans recognize the contributions of immigrants to our economy. As one Trump-voting farmer put it, admiring the way a whole community in Mexico pitched in to help someone build a house, “Small town Mexico, small town U.S.A. — same thing.”
It’s a bad look that Michels, whose group didn’t want to be punished for having undocumented employees, is now running on a promise to make those employees’ lives as miserable as possible.
With the horrifying discovery of 53 migrants who died in an abandoned tractor trailer in Texas while attempting to cross into the United States, it became clearer than ever that we need comprehensive immigration reform and a more humane approach to the people we rely on to do so much of the hard work that makes our country run.
Instead of competing to outdo each other by bashing immigrants, Republicans should listen to the rural Wisconsin voters who know full well what Michels doesn’t want to admit — that our economy is irreversibly dependent on immigrant labor. Instead of talking about putting driver’s licenses and college tuition out of reach for these workers, they should champion a legal visa program that recognizes the longstanding economic reality that the people of rural Wisconsin and rural Mexico are inextricably intertwined.
It’s time to drop the tough-guy posturing and stand behind an honest policy solution.
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