Along a desolate country road in northeastern Wisconsin, Manuel Estrada speeds toward work in his rumbling silver Ford SUV. He’s running late for his predawn shift. And he’s worried.
His boss is counting on him; she’s been down a worker for a month. More than 400 Holstein cows stand blinking, waiting to be milked. His family needs the paycheck from his $11.50-per-hour job.
And Estrada, 30, hopes the police aren’t waiting for him too.
It’s a risk he runs regularly during his 15-minute commute from his home in Manitowoc to the 150-year-old family dairy farm where he’s worked for two years.
Estrada, who has been in the country illegally for 13 years, is an unlicensed driver. This route passes through one of the top dairy-producing counties in the nation. If he’s picked up by police, he could have an even bigger worry than a traffic ticket due to ramped up immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump.
“What I am afraid of is the separation of family and being separated from my kids,” he said in Spanish.
Estrada’s boss, Abby Driscoll, voted for Trump. She has tried to reassure anxious employees after the election, telling them to just stay out of trouble.
“I was expecting some things to happen when I voted for Trump,” she said. “As far as all of his immigration policies, I guess I wasn’t expecting it to go as far as it did already.”
These are strange times in America’s Dairyland. Wisconsin voters gave Trump the electoral bump he needed to claim the White House in the 2016 election, the first time since 1984 that a Republican presidential candidate won the state.
Voters in Manitowoc County, where Estrada lives, overwhelmingly favored Trump. But police there say they focus on responding to local crime, not enforcing federal immigration law.
As one of the Wisconsin’s largest industries, dairy production is heavily dependent on immigrant workers. Farmers say few if any U.S. citizens apply for these jobs. Driscoll and some other farmers say the Trump immigration crackdown is making it harder to find workers.
State Rep. Bob Gannon, R-Slinger, is not sympathetic.
“If it takes illegal immigrants to make their business model operate, I think their model is broken,” he said. “I’m in agreement with President Trump that if you break the law in the United States, you should expect to get a one-way ticket out of here.”
Gannon is a co-sponsor of a controversial Assembly bill aimed at preventing sanctuary jurisdictions of all types.
The bill and its companion measure in the Senate would ban local governments from prohibiting police from asking about a person’s immigration status. The proposal also would require law enforcement to honor all “lawful” requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. Communities that violate the law would be assessed a fine of up to $5,000 a day.
Officials in Milwaukee County are on opposite sides of the issue. Milwaukee County’s firebrand sheriff, David Clarke, rails against sanctuary cities and locks up immigrants whenever asked, ignoring a county policy that restricts the practice. Other county officials have drawn federal scrutiny for their stance on protecting immigrants here illegally.
Sanctuary? What sanctuary?
Under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department in May asserted for the first time what the government considers a sanctuary. Citing a section of U.S. immigration law, Sessions said that state and local authorities who don’t share information with federal agents are sanctuary scofflaws.
Milwaukee County is one of nearly a dozen jurisdictions that received a notice from the Justice Department threatening to withhold more than $340 million in federal grant funding if officials failed to prove that local authorities share information with immigration agents.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting collected details on the sanctuary policies in all 10 jurisdictions. Policies include whether police can ask people about their immigration status or whether the jail agrees to honor requests from ICE to hold people who would otherwise be released.
Milwaukee County made the list because five years ago its Board of Supervisors passed a measure that honors those ICE detainers only for serious offenders. While many county jails contract with ICE for reimbursement, Milwaukee so far has not.
Peggy Romo West, the supervisor who pushed the resolution and the county board’s first Latina, said she did not want the county burdened with jailing petty criminals.
“Just on the financial angle it makes sense,” she said. “They weren’t paying us per day what it was that we were spending. And so why should the citizens of Milwaukee County eat that cost?”
For Sheriff Clarke, an ardent Trump supporter, any hint of resistance or indifference to federal immigration matters is unconscionable — and grounds for punishment.
“I don’t know how any law enforcement official or public official — a mayor or a governor — can sit back with a straight face and say our communities are stronger because of illegal immigration,” Clarke told Fox News’ Sean Hannity earlier this year.
His office rejects the county’s stance on detainer requests. He keeps inmates behind bars whenever ICE agents ask, at an annual cost to the county of nearly $1 million to detain roughly 3,000 immigrants. Clarke declined multiple interview requests.
Status questions limited in Milwaukee
Yet in the county seat, Milwaukee police are instructed not to “routinely” ask residents about immigration status if it would impede interviewing witnesses, filing of an incident report, conducting a criminal investigation or receiving a citizen complaint.
Mayor Tom Barrett declined to say whether Milwaukee is or isn’t a sanctuary, adding to the lack of clarity on where the city stands on the issue.
“If what they are trying to do is take our limited resources and move them from local law enforcement to federal law enforcement, I do have a problem with that,” Barrett said.
Elsewhere, policies vary widely, but five of the 10 jurisdictions rank high in terms of their status as sanctuaries based on policies that shield people from immigration enforcement. Milwaukee is characterized as medium.
Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, for instance, prohibit on-duty officers from sharing information with ICE about a person’s immigration status. On Monday, Chicago sued the Justice Department over its move to make sanctuary cities ineligible for its grants.
On the flip side, officials in Las Vegas and Miami have told the Trump administration that they have changed their policies this year to begin honoring ICE detainers. Officials in both places say the Justice Department recently told them they are in compliance with federal law.
The rest of the jurisdictions on the list have policies against honoring ICE detainers. All but one — Cook County — makes an exception if a person has been accused or convicted of a serious crime.
At one point, long-time conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes might have sided with Clarke. But late in his 25-year radio career, it became clear to Sykes, a fierce Trump critic, how entwined the state’s dairy industry was with illegal immigration.
“This is not an economy that is being damaged by illegal immigrants,” he said. “We’re really being kept afloat by it.”
Rise in hostility
As a 17-year-old, Estrada crossed into the United States from Mexico and ended up in Manitowoc “on a whim.”
Farm work came natural to him — he grew up on ranches — and he was hired quickly. And then he met his wife, Jennifer, and her four children from a previous marriage.
A fluent Spanish speaker born and raised in Wisconsin, Jennifer saw her family split apart when her then-husband was deported to Mexico. She moved the family south of the border, but soon returned to Manitowoc with just her four children in tow. She and Estrada now have a 3-year-old son together.
“If we don’t want to end up paying $10 for a gallon of milk we need to start protecting our workforce and our community,” she said. “These are people in our community that are living in fear.”
At a June rally on a rainy morning at the state Capitol in Madison, the Estradas spoke before a crowd gathered to protest the proposed anti-sanctuary law supported by Gannon.
“They call this the dairy state, but it’s thanks to the strength of the immigrants,” he told the crowd.
The couple has applied with the Department of Homeland Security to adjust Manuel’s immigration status. They feel confident that the government will grant them what they want.
But if ICE agents do come looking for her husband or other dairy workers, Jennifer Estrada has a plan: a team of two dozen people who have agreed to shelter people at risk of deportation.
On a dairy farm he co-owns in Sheboygan County, Daniel Guerrero takes a different tact. The dozen workers all live on the grounds to avoid contact with police. When they need to go to the grocery store or the dentist, Guerrero drives them.
Originally from Mexico, Guerrero came to this farm almost 20 years ago. The farm has prospered, growing from 300 cows to a herd of 2,000. In that time, he said, only one American job seeker has applied.
“He lasted for two hours,” Guerrero said. “It’s too hard for him.”
Driscoll said she wishes it wasn’t this way. She’d like to hire legal workers and U.S. citizens.
“We definitely realize that, you know, we are maybe turning a blind eye to it that some of these workers are in this country illegally,” she said.
Estrada doesn’t really blame Driscoll for voting for Trump. But he did warn her after the election that she could be milking the cows by herself.
Alexandra Hall of Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this story, which has been edited from the original version written for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. It was distributed by the Wisconsin Center, (www.WisconsinWatch.org), which collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Andrew Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Patrick Michels can be reached at email@example.com and Alexandra Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter: @ABeckerReveal, @PatrickMichels and @chalexhall.
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