Buy a pound of cheese or a carton of milk in the U.S., and it most likely hails from Wisconsin, the number-one cheese and number-two milk producer in the country. Often, that Wisconsin dairy product comes from a cow that was milked by an undocumented immigrant.
Nationwide, 51% of dairy workers are immigrants. According to workers, farmers, and industry experts, more than three-fourths of these immigrants are undocumented. As a result, farms with immigrant employees produce the vast majority—79%—of the American milk supply.
Many farmers attribute the dearth of American-born dairy workers to a cultural shift in the way we view the agriculture industry. “When I was growing up, the people that worked on farms were sons and daughters of other farmers,” says John Rosenow, a dairy farm owner from Wisconsin, in Jim Cricchi’s short documentary, Los Lecheros. Like much of the state’s $43 billion-a-year dairy industry, Rosenow’s farm now relies heavily on immigrant labor. He laments the fact that today dairy work is “relegated to immigrants” and is seen as being “beneath us.”
“Lots of people say that we come to steal jobs from people born here,” says Guillermo Ramos Bravo, a Mexican immigrant who manages a dairy farm in Wisconsin, in the film. “In 17 years [working here], I’ve never seen a person who was born here come and say to my boss, ‘I’m looking for a job and I want to milk cows.’”
Cricchi was motivated to turn to Wisconsin for a film idea following the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. “Wisconsin, which hadn’t voted for a Republican president since 1984, played a decisive role in electing Donald Trump,” Cricchi told The Atlantic, “and I wanted to better understand this shift.” With support from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Cricchi directed Los Lecheros, a rare window into the role of undocumented immigrants in the production of America’s dairy. Under the Trump administration, the fate of these year-round laborers—and the industry at large—is under threat. Many, including one family featured in the film, have opted to flee the U.S. in fear of ICE raids, which have increased since Trump’s election.
“Mass raids would devastate the dairy industry,” Cricchi said. “Right now, Wisconsin is losing about 10 dairy farms a week due to collapsed milk prices and labor shortages.” A 2015 dairy industry study predicted severe losses should the immigrant labor force be eliminated. 15% of dairy farms would close nationwide, retail milk prices would increase 90%, and over 200,000 people would lose their jobs.
In 2015, more immigrants returned to Mexico than came into the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.