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Thread: Farm family leaves for Mexico amid questions over immigration crackdown

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    Administrator Jean's Avatar
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    Farm family leaves for Mexico amid questions over immigration crackdown

    ALEXANDRA HALL Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism 4 hrs ago

    DURAND — In the driveway of a two-story house on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, five men focused on a unique construction project. Using a drill, hammer and nails, plywood and rope, they worked together in the afternoon sun to erect a structure that resembles a makeshift corral in the bed of a Honda pickup.

    Luisa Tepole, 25, carried a suitcase or packaged appliance out of the house, handing it to her husband, Miguel Hernandez, 36.

    By the end of the night, the back of the truck was piled high with bags of clothes and shoes, TV sets in boxes and a bucket of children’s toys, ready for the 2,300-mile drive to Veracruz, Mexico.

    Farm owners Doug and Toni Knoepke watched Hernandez and the other workers from a few feet away as they loaded their two-truck caravan. It looked like a scene from “The Grapes of Wrath,” Doug Knoepke remarked, referring to the movie about the mass migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s.

    Only this time, it was in reverse: The migrants were leaving a land abundant with economic opportunity for an uncertain future in their homeland.

    Hernandez worked on the Knoepkes’ farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He shared that home with his wife and two young sons, Thomas, 5, and Liam, 4.

    That day, at Thomas’ last day at Noah’s Ark Preschool, he cried as he told his classmates that he will not be starting kindergarten with them in the fall. He had never been to Mexico.

    Earlier this month, Hernandez and four other men, who for years had milked and cared for cows on dairy farms among the hills of western Wisconsin, drove away in the direction of their mountainous hometown of Texhuacan. A few days later, Tepole and the children flew out of Chicago.

    The Hernandez family left, in part, because of the threat of deportation — which could ban them from returning to the United States for 10 years — and what they described as increasingly harsh rhetoric by President Donald Trump and others toward immigrants, especially those here illegally.

    They moved here to America’s Dairyland, the nation’s top cheese state and No. 2 milk producer, attracted by a dairy industry dependent on undocumented immigrant labor to keep cows milked three times a day, year-round. They have raised their children in communities where American workers stopped answering “help wanted” ads for cow milkers long ago.

    And now, they have gone home.

    “Miguel has been our right hand,” Knoepke said. “He treated (the farm) like he owned it. We’re really saddened, scared. I don’t know. It’s sad.”

    In Wisconsin, farmers like Knoepke depend heavily on workers like Hernandez. Seeing him and the other workers leave worried this first-generation farmer with 650 cows.

    “I don’t know where the industry would be without (immigrant labor) right now,” Knoepke says.

    There are temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers, but year-round workers who make up the vast majority of the labor force on Wisconsin’s large dairies have no special protections, and many are in the country illegally. Knoepke says Congress “better do something … because (workers) are leaving. You see it right here. They’re packin’ up.”

    Hernandez’s brother, Damaso, who also works at a western Wisconsin dairy farm, says many workers he knows plan to leave because, “They’re scared of the government.”

    “It’s strange, it’s difficult because all the Hispanic people knew the Americans here in Wisconsin were supporting Donald Trump. I think they made a mistake, because a lot of people are fleeing for precisely that reason.”

    Arrests up in the Midwest

    Federal figures show immigration-related arrests in the six-state Midwestern region, including Wisconsin, have risen since Trump took office.

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that arrests in the Chicago region rose to 2,599 between Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, through April 29, the first 100 days of the Trump administration. That figure exceeds arrest totals from the same time period in the previous two years under President Barack Obama. However, it is lower than the same time period in 2014, when there were 3,033 arrests.

    Nationwide, ICE arrests totaled 41,898, about 35 percent higher than last year but lower than the 2014 figure of 54,584.

    Implementation memos issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security earlier this year expanded ICE’s target from individuals convicted of serious crimes to those charged with even low-level offenses. The memos also direct that no one in the country illegally is exempt from deportation.

    As rumors circulated that ICE had visited Durand, four other dairy workers joined Hernandez, whose reasons for leaving included returning to see his ill father. He and his friends determined it was best to go now — organized, relaxed and with a plan.

    “It’s better to go back home because of the laws — they’re coming after us,” says Luis Mendez, 32.

    If you are deported, he said, “You take the clothes you’re wearing … and that’s it.” But with a planned departure, Mendez said, immigrants can keep their belongings and money.

    Still others, like Hernandez’s brother Damaso — who has lived in the United States for 17 years — are staying, but the situation could change at any moment. He thinks about the effect of leaving on his four children, who were raised in Wisconsin.

    “My kids are very accustomed to life here,” Damaso Hernandez says. “The truth is, I don’t know what type of life they would have over there.”

    Working until the last day

    It is 7:15 in the morning on May 31. As the sun peeks over the hills to the east, workers are in action. One drives a tractor through the fields while another steers a feed truck between two rows of cows. All the while, men in the milking parlor never stop moving. Some have been working since 11 p.m. and are just finishing their shifts.

    At this hour, everyone on the farm is an immigrant from Mexico.

    For Hernandez, today is just like any other workday over the past 16 years, except that it is his last. He does not want to work today, but his bosses say they really need the help. He opens and closes metal gates, shoo-ing cows in and out of the milking parlor, and sweeps piles of manure and feed off the floor of the barn.

    Tepole is excited. She has not been back home in the 11 years since she first came to the United States. Her parents have never met their grandchildren, and her mother is happy they are coming home.

    Hernandez knows his decision to raise his children in Mexico will affect their future.

    “It’s a huge difference in school here compared to the school in Mexico. I think we are a lot behind in Mexico, but … it is what it is,” Hernandez says, shrugging his shoulders.

    Four or five people have applied for Hernandez’s job, but none have worked out, according to herd manager Henry Yoder. Knoepke says he probably will need to promote from within.

    Hernandez says the farm owners want him to come back legally if that ever becomes possible.

    “They are waiting for the government to do something … so they can bring people with papers or with visa, but they are just waiting,” he says.

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