E-Verify Rattles Nerves In America's Dairyland

States like Ariz. and Miss. require employers to check if new hires are undocumented. It's a system known as E-Verify. Wis. could be deeply affected if Congress decides to make it mandatory nationwide, particularly because many farmlands in Wis. rely on migrant labor. Host Michel Martin speaks with Deborah Reinhart, owner of Gold Star Dairy Farm in New Holstein, Wis., and Georgia Pabst, reporter for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as kids head back to school around the country, we decided to spend some time talking about education today. One magazine's college rankings feature some unexpected schools at the top. We're going to ask why and we'll explore a provocative idea aimed at closing the so-called achievement gap.

That conversation's just ahead. But first we want to turn to immigration. Controversial new immigration rules in Alabama had been set to go into effect tomorrow, but this week a federal judge in that state temporarily halted implementation of the law to give her time to evaluate constitutional objections raised by a wide group of critics. But one element of that law seems to have wide support around the country. It would require businesses to check if new hires are undocumented using a system known as E-verify.

Congress is considering making E-verify mandatory nationwide, so we decided to check in with a state that could be deeply affected, Wisconsin. Farmers in America's dairyland are increasingly worried about what E-verify could mean for their workforce. To learn more about that, we've called upon Deborah Reinhart. She owns the Gold Star dairy farm with her husband. She joins us by phone from her farm in New Holstein, Wisconsin. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

DEBORAH REINHART: Greetings from America's (technical difficulties).

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Also with us, Georgia Pabst. She's been covering this issue for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and she joins us from member station WUWM. Thank you both for joining us. Georgia, thank you for coming.

GEORGIA PABST: Your welcome.

MARTIN: Georgia, I'm going to start with you because you've been writing about this. What are the arguments for and against E-verify in your state and what do most voters who've been consulted on this think about it?

PABST: Well, the law was introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas and it's called the legal workforce act and that's pretty descriptive, which means that it would require employers to check electronically with the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security to make sure that their workers are eligible to work, have adequate Social Security numbers, and the argument is that there are nine percent - there's nine percent unemployment in the country and that there are jobs.

These are jobs that could go to Americans and that Americans need to have these jobs and not illegal immigrants. So that's the argument which is also been bolstered by state - or(ph) Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who said that individuals come here because the system allows them to work illegally and that once that illegal aspect is taken away, that these jobs will go to Americans and it will decrease immigration, illegal immigration. The argument that the farmers make is that they need a source of work force to milk their cows 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

That in recent years, the last 15, 20 years, they have been unable to get the local folks to work on the farm. Many have left the city - have left the country for the city. There's a lot of cultural and demographic changes that have gone on, in the - particularly in Wisconsin, in the dairyland, and so about 11 years ago the farmers started turning to Mexican immigrants who made, as it turned out, very good workers who are willing to work, who are willing to do - it's a hard job, 10 hours a day, and care for the cattle that produce, that have to be milked twice a day year round to produce the milk that is one of the obviously signature industries of Wisconsin.

MARTIN: And a staple of, you know, the American diet. So Deborah, you're a perfect person to ask about this because your family has owned Gold Star Dairy for 100 years as I understand it. What role does migrant or immigrant labor play in your operation?

REINHART: As Georgia said, since about 1998 we have not been able to hire a native worker to work on the dairy. We've had a labor force from Mexico, and that took place when our children went off to college and the last of their high school friends left for college and we needed a more consistent, stable work force, and that's when we started working with the Mexican immigrant.

MARTIN: And as Georgia said, are these workers getting the job done for you?

REINHART: Our employees are just excellent, excellent employees. They are careful with the cattle. They sing, they're a joy to be around. A lot of times they'll bring David some Mexican cuisine, which is excellent. And they're consistent, they're dependable. It allows us to get off the farm. They're willing to work long hours in bad weather, night shifts, weekends, 24/7, 365 days a week. They are wonderful. And without our Hispanic employees, we would not be able to continue farming.

MARTIN: But presumably you've checked their documentation, so what is the objection and what is the objection more broadly if not of you than of other farmers like you?

REINHART: We have filled out the I-9 forms on all of our employees as we are required to do by our federal government. We also take all the taxes out and send them to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. But you know, I read the papers just like everyone else, and what we're being told is that 50 to 60 percent of our immigrant labor is undocumented, and so I'm quite concerned, you know, there's a big unknown here relative to E-verify. If in fact that ag workforce work force is undocumented at the levels that people are telling us, that food production in this country will be disrupted.

MARTIN: So is it - Georgia, maybe I'll ask you this, and if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're looking at what the controversial E-verify immigration system could mean for farmers in the state of Wisconsin. With us are dairy farmer Deborah Reinhart. That's who was speaking just now. The Gold Star Dairy has been in her family for 100 years. Also with us, Georgia Pabst of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who's been writing about this.

So Georgia, it's been reported that it's basically an open secret that a lot of the documentation that workers present is false, particularly in the agricultural area. Do you think that's true?

PABST: Well, as Deb said, there's no way of knowing. Right now all that's required is that they fill out these I-9 forms and that they get the information. The big difference is, is that right now farmers - and other employees, actually, too - are not required to verify the information. Their responsibility is to take it down, to keep it on file. When there is - if there's an audit done, then they present the information and other, you know, they can be investigated further down the line. But the big difference is that right now there's no responsibility on the part of the employer or the farmer to verify the information.

MARTIN: So, Deborah...

REINHART: And that's the big difference.

MARTIN: That's the big difference. So Deborah, is your concern that if you had to dig deeper, as it were, that some of these workers might not show up again or that they would be intimidated from coming? Or is it that perhaps they have family members who's documentation is not in order and that they wouldn't come because of family members? What is the concern?

REINHART: I think it's all of the above. I'm frightened because I have a business to run and animals that need to be cared for and milk harvested 24/7, and I, again, I'm told that 50 to 60 percent of our workforce could be undocumented and there will be an environment of fight(ph) and a lack of security for these people in our community, and it frightens me. The other part of it is we understand that the E-verify system is flawed, that often when you call in you get incorrect information.

The other part of it is with the Hispanic employees, sometimes they have three or four names and if you don't have them in the right order, the documentation won't be correct. And E-verify does nothing to address or ensure the security of our long-term employees. Most of my employees have been here 10 years, six years, five years, four years, so E-verify makes no provisions for helping them to work with proper documentation, should it be needed.

MARTIN: And what to the point that Georgia Pabst just raised, that the sponsors of this bill are saying in fact the Obama administration supports wider of E-Verify, that has to be said, so this is bipartisan. But they're saying that if this - that Americans would take these jobs if there were not so many immigrants being given these jobs ahead of them, that if it were - if there were more of a market for their labor, that they would take it. And what do you say to that?

REINHART: I will tell you that it's been since 1998 when I was able to hire a native worker, and I will give you an example. We have higher-paying, higher-level jobs open four years ago, and it was about the time that a factory in our neighboring town closed.

I thought oh great, you know, this will be a great job for a factory worker who's unemployed. And I put it out on the Wisconsin job net and in the local papers, and I had six applicants, not one from any of the local factories. A couple of them, you know, had various health concerns or were not going to be able to do the work, and I ended up hiring a Hispanic gentleman.

And I have to say that I was very disappointed. So in fact I will tell you that we ag owners are not taking the jobs - these Hispanic employees are not taking the jobs away from the traditional workers because they are not coming to look for those jobs.

MARTIN: Georgia, final thought from you, we have about a minute and a half left. Is what Deb's reporting kind of widespread? Are her experiences fairly common? And if you would then tell us what are the prospects for this bill that I know you've been reporting on. What are you hearing about what the prospects are for passage of this bill?

PABST: Right, I think the issue for not just farming and agriculture but for many employees in roofing, agriculture, landscape, contracting, is that the present policy is don't ask, don't tell, and people, you know, they get the information that they need to get, and everybody kind of turns the eye and says OK, we've got these workers, we've got what we need, and yet everyone knows, including many - you know, the Congress, that there are - that illegal immigrants are doing these jobs, that they are needed.

So on the one hand, there is this cry to do away with illegal immigration. On the other hand, everybody knows that illegal immigrants are part of the workforce and are needed. So that it's - this call for comprehensive immigration has gone nowhere for three administrations, and so the battle continues, and the broken system continues to limp along.

The thing about the Lamar Smith bill, E-Verify, mandatory, had a lot of steam, as I understand it, in the beginning. But then, of course, all the discussion about the budget and the debt ceiling kind of blew that out of the water. So there's still - it's unclear as to where that bill is going.

But if not, other states are starting their own E-Verify laws, and Arizona just recently, the Supreme Court just approved Arizona's E-Verify. So that's likely to happen, as well.

MARTIN: All right, to be continued, obviously a lot to talk about. Georgia Pabst is a reporter with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Among other things, she covers the Latino community in and around that city. She was with us from member station WUWM.

Also with us, Deborah Reinhart, she owns the Gold Star Dairy Farm with her husband. She was with us on the phone from New Holstein, Wisconsin. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PABST: Goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, we'll speak with an educator who says if you really want to help kids who are struggling, the way to do it is to give them the options usually reserved for so-called gifted and talented students.

YVETTE JACKSON: By giving students the opportunity to do their own kind of inquiry that takes them into their own strengths, that does not cost extra money.

MARTIN: That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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