The (Hispanic) elephant in the state

With all the attention Latino voters received this past election season, it’s hard to remember that vote-courting is far from real immigration reform.

To Latinos in rural Wisconsin, who wage their futures on progressive changes, the fact that Obama was re-elected may be less significant than whether he follows through on campaign promises.

Last month, PolitiFact measured one of Mitt Romney’s debate statements on the “Truth-O-Meter:” Obama broke his promise to offer a comprehensive immigration bill in his first year.  That time, Romney landed the punch.

Yet, it’s also true that Obama took steps during his last term in office that were generally well received by Latinos. This article, published Nov. 14 in the Chicago Tribune, highlighted recent achievements like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and spoke to Obama’s current willingness to revisit policy reform.

If you live in Wisconsin, you might wonder why the issue has suddenly become so crucial. Of the roughly 5.7 million who live in the state, only 6 percent are counted as Hispanic or Latino. It might seem we don’t have the numbers for immigration to warrant such media attention.

This summer, a colleague and I wrote a three-part series about how people are leaving rural areas faster than they have in previous decades.  These areas are often aging, seeing fewer babies and losing many of the same young people who worked local jobs and supported the tax base.

The exceptions, perhaps surprisingly, have been counties built on agriculture. Throughout middle America, areas hardest hit by rural depopulation have been corn belt states such as Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

Jeremy Meissner (left) holds his son, Ethan, and talks with his father, Jerry, on their dairy farm in Chili, Wis., on July 12, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

But farming dependent counties in Wisconsin have had their populations buffered by young Hispanic workers who often move in to work the vacant dairy jobs. A 2010 story, by former Wisconsin Watch reporter Jacob Kushner, outlined how immigrants made up “nearly 60 percent of the work force at the state’s largest dairy farms, those with more than 300 cows.”

We can’t talk about population change without talking about Hispanic immigration, said Katherine Curtis, assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Overall, there’s an important effect and important contribution of the Hispanic population,” said Curtis, “In local communities we often hear about their importance in keeping the dairy industry afloat and rural schools open — in some cases, just keeping rural communities alive.”

Kushner also reported that in Darlington, a farming community in southwestern Wisconsin, whites and Hispanics seemed to be coexisting peacefully, using each others’ strengths for the city’s benefit.

But that is not the experience of all Latinos in rural areas. While reporting in Clark County, my co-reporter and I noticed an unspoken, ambiguous tension between Hispanics and public officials.

Abbotsford is one of Clark County’s largest communities and home to several large, food processing plants. On the town’s main street, the Mexican restaurant, boutique and grocery stand out from the monochromatic storefronts.

The impact of immigration is clear in this small town. And several people remarked on the positive aspects the newcomers offer.

Dennis Kramer, owner of the local County Market grocery store, said Hispanic employees are some of his hardest workers. His business is also doing well, he said, in part because he’s selling more products to Hispanic consumers.

Reed Welsh, Abbotsford School District administrator, said his district is one of the few in the area that has added students in recent years, thanks to the influx of immigrants. In 2000, just under 7 percent of students were Hispanic; now it’s just over 35 percent. Enrollment has increased from 651 in 2000 to 707 in 2011, an increase of nearly 9 percent.

Alex Vasquez sits on a trampoline outside his family’s home in Abbotsford, Wis. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Yet, if the benefits are clear, officials are careful not to publicly celebrate.

Abbotsford Police Chief Ron Gosse recognized the importance of Hispanic labor in the area, but reminded me it’s an officer’s duty to ticket drivers who don’t carry valid licenses. He seemed hesitant to say much more. I’m not sure the words, “Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism,” helped the situation any.

Perhaps State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who represents parts of Clark, Marathon and Wood counties, summarized the issue most succinctly:

“It’s very clear, we do have a large Hispanic population.  And it’s clear that many Hispanic workers contribute and support the area economically. The exception becomes, if people are not here legally, that becomes an issue. I know people feel very strongly, in Clark County, on both sides of this issue.  And many will be paying attention to what happens in November to see how this situation will be handled as we move forward.”

It seems we can’t sustain the current situation. Local communities need direction and state residents need answers. Offering solutions is above my pay grade, but we need residents in small-town Wisconsin to be part of the larger conversation happening around immigration policy.

Just as Rep. Suder said, we did watch the elections. We followed them closely. We’re still waiting.

Alex Vasquez, 15, jumps on his trampoline to dunk a basketball during a game against his cousin, Jordi Acosta, 19, in Abbotsford, Wis., on July 8, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “The (Hispanic) elephant in the state

  1. Another interesting article, MarsField. Fine work. I have a question: As you stated, the Latino population in the rural areas you outlined figures heavily in the ongoing proliferation of the agrarian workplaces therein; are the individuals represented in the statistics you cite primarily first generation or are they from families with a history in the region? My knee jerk assumption is that they are most likely first generation. If so, do we have any information on Latinos who are second generation or beyond and the career paths they have taken? I think it will be interesting to see in coming years whether the children of the individuals who have moved here recently and occupied these farming jobs will choose to continue in a similar line of work or if they will prove integral to the development of the skilled workforce so many regions in Wisconsin are lacking in order to sustain the types of industries they built themselves upon over the past 100+ years. It makes me think about your article on Wisconsin Rapids and the quandary that they are in as they struggle to deal with the dying out of the paper industry while lacking the skilled labor needed to attract companies that desire talents that don’t necessarily translate well from one industry to another. How large of an impact do you think descendants of this demographic will make in helping to resolve these issues as Wisconsin looks to sustain and grow their rural areas in the coming 10 to 20 years?

    • Jordan,

      Thanks for reading and for the fine compliments. You raise excellent questions. I worked with Kate Prengaman, a fellow intern and pretty much a machine, on the data portion of this story and her findings might address some of these questions.

      From Kate:

      “In Wisconsin, the average county population growth is 6 percent, with a net migration change of 1.2 percent. The highest population losses are in Iron, Florence and Price. The highest out-migration is in Menominee, Florence, and Clark. (Iron and Price and others not far behind).

      A complicating factor in WI’s rural population change includes the increasing Hispanic populations. In 31 counties in WI, the Hispanic population has more than doubled from 2000-2010. The Hispanic population has increased almost 6-fold in Trempealeau county in the past decade. The statewide Hispanic population increased about 75 percent during the same period, in comparison to a 1.2 percent increase in the white population. In Clark County, the Hispanic population has grown by 219 percent from 2000-2010, while the white population grew less than 1 percent. However, 95 percent of the county population is white and 4 percent is Hispanic.”

      As part of this story, I also asked if she could find data for the foreign-born population. She found that in 2010, 336,056 were counted as Hispanic in Wisconsin that year while 257,987, almost 77 percent, were foreign-born.

      So to answer your question, yes, I think second-generation Latinos in our state could definitely bolster the workforce. But one concern is that many of the jobs that are available are increasingly reliant on high-tech skills. Many of the old manufacturing jobs are changing, because less reliant on labor. In order for second-generation Latinos to compete in this market, they will need access to education routes that are currently closed to them. While reporting other stories in Madison, I’ve spoken with many young Hispanics who were born in the U.S. but don’t have access to student loans or means to higher education. It’s not a jump to assume this contributes to drop-out rates.

      In my humble opinion, this is just one more reason for a sense of urgency when considering the DREAM Act or Deferred Action.

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