July 11, 2010

Immigrant dairy workers transform a rural Wisconsin community

Mark McFall, 57, of Platteville, buys a coconut from Efrain Garcia, a dairy farmer from Dubuque. Garcia's relatives live in Darlington and run the taco stand next to his at the community's annual Fiesta Latina.

Jake Naughton/WCIJ

Mark McFall, 57, of Platteville, buys a coconut from Efrain Garcia, a dairy farmer from Dubuque. Garcia's relatives live in Darlington and run the taco stand next to his at the community's annual Fiesta Latina.

How a Spanish-speaking sergeant helped ease tensions in Darlington

About this series

This is Part 6 of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Dairyland Diversity project, exploring the increased role of immigrants on Wisconsin dairy farms.

DARLINGTON — Before Sgt. Antonio Ruesga arrived in this southwestern Wisconsin community a decade ago, the police could barely communicate with the few Spanish-speaking immigrants who had come to work at local dairies.

While tensions mount in Arizona and elsewhere over how to curb illegal immigration, Ruesga, who is Hispanic and fluent in Spanish, has created an atmosphere of trust among police and local immigrants. Latinos — once fearful of the police — now help solve crimes in this city of 2,400 located 60 miles southwest of Madison.

A Hispanic grocery store owner recently called Ruesga about a suspicious group of men attempting to cash checks from a business where they didn’t work. Ruesga later arrested three men for alleged check fraud against local banks.

“They choose to take the next step which was to report a crime — to actually call us even though they weren’t victims themselves,” Ruesga said. “That means that they care about Darlington, they want to see it safe.”

It is, after all, their community too.

On the weekends, Christian music blares in Spanish from inside a church on Louisa Street.

Darlington High School students create brochures reading “Bienvenidos a Darlington, Wisconsin,” welcoming Spanish-speaking immigrants to their community.

There are two Mexican grocery stores in Darlington and similar markets in other small communities across the state.

And each May, residents turn out to celebrate Mexican culture through food, dance, music and conversation at Fiesta Latina.

A decade ago, Darlington was home to 27 Hispanics, according to the census. Today police say there are about 300 Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere living here. An unknown number are in the U.S. illegally; others have earned legal residency.

The rise has fueled a growth in Latino students in the Darlington School District, where 38 of the 752 students are Hispanic. As recently as the 2001-02 school year, all students were white.

Most of the foreign newcomers are lured by jobs in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, which is increasingly reliant upon immigrant workers. Dairies employ about 5,300 immigrants in Wisconsin, making up an estimated 40 percent of the industry’s workforce, up sharply from about 5 percent a decade earlier, according to the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies (PATS).

The trend could continue as farmers implement plans to expand herds, requiring even more workers.

‘Bringing new diversity’

Hispanic immigrants across rural Wisconsin have begun stepping off the farm and onto Main Street, working at jobs outside of agriculture, joining in community events and starting small businesses that boost local economies.

Darlington is an example of how a rural Wisconsin community overcame its hesitation toward an unfamiliar culture. And it isn’t the only one: Eighty percent of the dairy workers surveyed in a 2009 PATS study said they felt accepted in the communities where they lived.

“Immigrant workers are bringing new diversity to rural communities that hasn’t existed for decades and contributing to the local economy throughout dairy Wisconsin,” said Wilda Nilsestuen, executive director of the nonprofit Council of Rural Initiatives, which organizes summits to improve relationships between immigrants and local residents.

“It’s poverty that drives them from their homelands and opportunities that bring them here,” said Nilsestuen, whose brother Rod is Wisconsin’s agriculture secretary.

Darlington native Savannah Blaser has witnessed the change since her graduation from high school in 2005. Blaser now holds degrees in Spanish and global studies from UW-Milwaukee. And she’s using her worldly knowledge right here in Darlington.

“There were no Hispanics in my class (and) in the whole school maybe three when I was there,” said Blaser, who now teaches English to Spanish speakers at the city library. “Now there’s a lot more integration of the culture.”

A visitor to Darlington probably would notice more grumbling about the increase in Amish horses and buggies on the roads than the influx of immigrants. But Darlington’s transformation into a culturally diverse community wasn’t always smooth.

Police and local residents recall fights a few years back between local residents and Spanish-speaking newcomers. In the past, some parents told their children not to interact with Hispanics at school, Darlington High School teacher Dianna Rogers said.

Police Sgt. Tony Ruesga came to Darlington to build ties with its rapidly growing Hispanic population that initially was hesitant to interact with police. Now, immigrants report crimes just like other residents. Jacob Kushner/WCIJ

Police help ease tensions

These tensions became a challenge for Darlington Police Chief Jason King, who saw it as his duty to improve relations between long-time locals and the new immigrants.

“When I started policing here … there were not any non-English speaking citizens in this community. Darlington was not very diverse; it was 99 percent Caucasians,” said King, who is white and doesn’t speak Spanish.

When immigrants began arriving, the chief said he had a hard time connecting with them.

“There was a definite gap — we couldn’t communicate with them,” King said. “We weren’t providing the same level of services to them that we were other residents of the community. They were afraid of us.”

To build trust between Hispanics and his department, King hired Ruesga, now a well-known figure among both immigrants and native Darlington residents. Ruesga spends time interacting with local Hispanic residents to build trust and explain laws, like reminding them to fill out their U.S. census forms. He also started an advisory committee that helps integrate the newcomers into the community.

Ruesga was exactly what Darlington needed, King said.

“The end result in my mind has been, they aren’t afraid of us, they cooperate with us, they’re reporting crimes to us — all the things that we would want citizens in our community to do,” the chief said.

Immigrants themselves sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law in Darlington, mostly for minor infractions, Lafayette County District Attorney Charlotte Doherty said.

Obtaining a Wisconsin driver’s license became impossible for many undocumented immigrants since a 2005 state law passed to comply with the federal Real ID Act required applicants for a driver’s license to submit proof of citizenship or legal resident status.

“The vast majority of the cases involving Hispanic descendants are (for) operating without a license,” Doherty said. “They can’t get driver’s licenses, and they work on farms. The farms are out of town, and they live in town, and they drive back and forth to work.”

Francisco, who asked that his last name not be used because he’s in the country illegally, works on a dairy farm outside of Darlington. Because of his status, the Mexican immigrant can’t get a driver’s license. Francisco said he knows it’s not legal for him to drive, but he has no other way to get to work.

“If you don’t have a license, you’ll have problems with the police,” Francisco said. “In Mexico you just bribe the police, but here you can’t bribe the police.”

Doherty said about 5 percent all prosecutions involve Hispanic residents, and the costs associated with processing them are minimal. “These people pay their tickets — that increases the revenue in the clerk of courts office,” she said.

Adults struggle to learn English

Across the street from the police department, a librarian browses through the Spanish-language section at the Johnson Public Library before teaching an English class to Hispanic adults. Library director Nita Burke uses the collection to draw in members of the Hispanic community, but she said making connections to that group hasn’t been easy.

Eduardo Dorantes, a son of Alfredo Dorantes, works on Jay Stauffacher’s farm outside Darlington when he’s not attending class at Darlington High School. He hopes to go to college so he doesn’t have to do dairy work forever. Jacob Kushner/WCIJ

An adult learner may only come a few times and not return, or miss a lot of sessions, making consistent instruction difficult. “I’m reaching out to them,” Burke said. “It’s a long process.”

Immigrants say they don’t have a lot of free time to get deeply involved in local programs and organizations.

“The problem is that when we came here, we were thinking about working to earn money,” said Alfredo Dorantes, a Darlington resident and dairy worker who’s been in the U.S. for eight years. “We put school off to the side; we didn’t have time to study English.

“I can’t talk with Americans because it’s very hard work to communicate, and I feel bad when I can’t communicate with anyone,” he added in Spanish. “It’s uncomfortable to be sitting next to someone that you can’t have a conversation with.”

Integration starts at school

Dorantes said his three children, on the other hand, are all fluent in English.

In fact, schools often are the first place rural Wisconsin life meets Hispanic culture.

When Spanish-speaking students arrived in Darlington, teachers say they had trouble helping them learn English quickly enough to understand the material being taught. Sending notes home to parents was impossible for all but the handful of teachers who knew some Spanish. Some of those hurdles have evaporated as the children learn English.

“In the schools, they interact with Americans, their friends are Americans,” Dorantes said. “They are better adapted than us.”

But not everyone in the community was initially pleased with the arrival of foreigners to Darlington schools.

“When I first started, I would get a lot of ‘My dad doesn’t think I should learn Spanish because they should learn English,’ ” said Rogers, who teaches Spanish at the high school. “Now, it’s ‘I’m taking Spanish Three and Four because I know that I need that. I want to be able to talk at the restaurant … I work here and I need to be able to speak it.’ ”

Undocumented immigrants pay for, use public services

Many of the immigrants interviewed for this reporting project don’t have valid work visas to be in the United States. Farm owners say they deduct federal and state taxes from the paychecks of all of their workers — money that goes toward benefits such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare that only legal residents are eligible to receive.

Still, volunteer firefighter and Darlington resident Mark Nelson said he takes issue with immigrants who are here illegally, especially when they break the law by driving without a license. He’s seen the problem play out at accident scenes involving undocumented residents.

“I’ve seen seven or eight licenses come out of their billfold,” Nelson said. “It takes two hours to run all of them through and figure out which one’s correct.”

Nelson, who ran unsuccessfully for Darlington mayor this spring, said illegal immigrants also may be suppressing wages in Darlington and elsewhere.

“If they’ve got these illegals coming in, and these companies can hire them seven, eight bucks cheaper, that’s not helping the unemployment rate at all,” he said.

Immigrants also use public services at Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County, and many are unable to pay for the emergency care the hospital is mandated to provide, hospital administrator Sherry Kudronowicz said.

Kudronowicz said dairy workers — both native and foreign — often don’t have medical coverage because most employers don’t offer it. She said uninsured Hispanics, like other patients without health-care coverage, make costly emergency room visits because their lack of insurance prompts them to skip preventive care. In the UW-Madison survey of immigrant dairy workers, 29 percent reported having health insurance.

Patients who can’t pay for emergency care may be eligible for the hospital’s charity-care program, which forgives part or all of the bill for poor patients. Kudronowicz said funding for that program comes from the hospital’s operating budget, which is supported by patients whose bills are paid in full.

“They’re using the services, they’re not abusing the services,” Kudronowicz said. “They’re using the services that they need, and as a hospital, that’s why we’re here.”

Local businessman Diego Camacho insisted that even immigrants who are here illegally aren’t a drain on the community. Camacho is an interpreter whose family owns the Steil Camacho Funeral Home in Darlington. He said many immigrants strive to improve themselves and their communities through hard work.

“They all want to contribute — nobody wants to be a parasite,” he said. “Very few people come to take advantage of the system.”

Bigger farms mean more immigrant workers

Click here to see data: In Part 5 of Dairyland Diversity, we explored the causes of the Wisconsin dairy industry's newfound reliance on immigrant workers.

Dairy farmers said they need the new immigrants to keep their industry growing. The flood of workers from Mexico to rural Wisconsin towns is likely to continue as dairy farms continue to get bigger — and hire more immigrants to shoulder the growing workload.

Farmers spent nearly $1 billion to modernize or expand their dairy facilities between 2003 and 2007, and they are expected to continue at least that level of investment between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 survey of dairy producers.

Among those investing is farmer James Winn. He’s one reason Darlington’s Hispanic population increased significantly over the past decade. Eight years ago, Winn hired his first immigrant laborer because he couldn’t find enough local workers to milk the cows at his expanded dairy operation.

Now, 16 of his 23 employees are Hispanic, and Winn has been an official sponsor of Darlington’s annual Fiesta Latina.

State Rep. Steve Hilgenberg, D-Dodgeville, whose district includes Darlington, said the arrival of Hispanic immigrants is a boost to the struggling economy of southwestern Wisconsin.

“This is a labor force that dairy owners are pretty satisfied with. They seem to be hard working, they seem to be engaged,” Hilgenberg said. “It’s kept a lot of dairy farms running that would have had a difficult time doing so.”

Hilgenberg said waves of immigrants are part of Wisconsin’s history. Foreigners come to Wisconsin “to improve themselves and help the state develop,” he said — just like the others before them, including Germans, the Hmong, Italians, Norwegians and Poles.
Fitting into Darlington’s future

When Margarita Hernandez first came to Darlington in 2002, she expected to encounter xenophobia and uneasiness. Instead, she found acceptance and success. Over the past eight years, Hernandez has worked at a variety of jobs, including factory work. Until recently, she owned Las Margaritas, a Mexican grocery.

“Here, racism hardly exists at all,” Hernandez said. “In other places, racism is how Americans most frequently approach Mexicans, but not here — it’s a very easygoing town.”

Her son, Alex Rivera, 15, agreed.

“We have a lot of Hispanics here attending school, many Mexicans,” said Rivera, who switches easily between English and Spanish. “The (Americans) interact with us, they’re not racist, we all hang out together, we have class together — the teachers too — racism doesn’t exist.”

Moving in and up

Perhaps even more significant than the movement of immigrants to Wisconsin’s dairies is their movement beyond the farm.

Eduardo Dorantes, a son of Alfredo Dorantes who will be a junior at Darlington High School, works four shifts a week on Jay Stauffacher’s dairy farm outside of Darlington. He’s been there for a year and a half, balancing a social life, work and school. He recently got a 25-cent raise to $8.25 an hour, but Eduardo Dorantes doesn’t plan to be a farmworker forever.

“The truth is, I don’t want to keep working on a farm — I want to keep studying,” Eduardo Dorantes said in Spanish. “My interest is in learning, no matter where that may be.”

Parents often encourage their children to become educated, and many immigrants who begin working on dairy farms and other entry-level positions move on to other jobs.

The son of Puerto Rican parents, Camacho began 35 years ago as an apprentice at a Middleton funeral home. Now he owns two funeral homes in southwestern Wisconsin, and his daughter, Cristina, owns the family’s funeral home in Darlington.

Camacho has this advice for the new immigrants: “Don’t just take advantage of the employment at the dairy. One day you may be able to own that dairy.”