Immigrant workers in Wisconsin deserve a fair opportunity to build productive lives here as a vital part of the workforce, said Gordon Speirs, president of the Dairy Business Association.
"It's critical that Wisconsin be a welcoming place for Latino and other immigrant workers who play such an important role in many parts of the economy," said Speirs, as thousands of Latinos rallied in Madison in protest of two pieces of legislation they feel are anti-immigrant.
The bills deal with restrictions on issuing local identification cards and a ban on "sanctuary cities," where police and other public employees are not allowed to ask about someone's citizenship status.
Dairy farmers face significant struggles in finding and retaining workers because of the demands of the job.
"This is a very real problem and one that poses a major threat to our farms as well as the host of businesses and services connected to dairy," said Speirs, who owns a large-scale family dairy farm in Brillion, WI.
Dairy accounts for $43.4 billion of Wisconsin's annual economy, almost half of agriculture's overall impact. Immigrants, particularly Latinos, are key.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison study in 2009, the most recent available, found that about 40 percent or 5,300 of all employees on dairy farms in the state were immigrants, with 90 percent of them from Mexico.
Ultimately, federal immigration reforms are needed to provide some avenue for those workers to remain in the country regardless of their status, Speirs said.
The state bills could have limited practical impact, but they signal that Wisconsin does not value immigrants' contributions, Speirs said.
"That's not the sort of message we should be sending," he said. "Driving away immigrant workers is not the answer."