WAUSAU — In many ways, this central Wisconsin city would seem an unlikely spot for a discussion about immigration reform.
It’s not in a “sandy state” like Texas, California or Arizona, where border control issues are at the forefront of an often-divisive national debate. The closest international border to Wausau is that with Canada (unless you count Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which some Wisconsin natives do).
It’s not a major metropolitan area, where immigrants, legal and otherwise, tend to congregate as they pursue their own version of the American Dream. Located in largely rural Marathon County, Wausau is a city of about 40,000 that has absorbed several thousand Hmong immigrants beginning in the 1970s.
Wausau was nonetheless the site of a forum on Wednesday that demonstrated how the issue of immigration reform has become a district-by-district struggle for votes in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a Senate-passed reform bill faces an uncertain future.
A group called “Bibles, Badges and Business” worked with FWD.us, a coalition of technology companies, to bring together supporters of reform to talk about why it matters in places such as Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. The district covers much of northwest Wisconsin and is represented by Republican Sean Duffy, who has yet to say how he might vote if the bill reaches the House floor.
With one of Duffy’s key staffers in the audience, panelists offered a mix of perspectives — from the religious, public safety and business worlds — on why immigration reform would help the U.S. and northern Wisconsin.
Speakers included Tim O’Harrow, whose Oconto County dairy farm was raided by immigration authorities six years ago. “Law enforcement descended on our farm like wild dogs, and treated one of our original employees like a dog, or less than,” he recalled.
O’Harrow is representative of a trend on Wisconsin dairy farms, especially those with larger herds. About 40 percent of dairy farm workers in Wisconsin are immigrants, according to a UW-Madison study.
Ed Lump, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said his industry employs a number of immigrants — and the jobs they hold aren’t always low wage or dead-end. Many use the experience to become managers or start their own businesses.
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said treating immigrants fairly is at the heart of Christian doctrine. “It’s central to who we are. From the very beginning, Christians have been called to care and speak out for those at the margins of society,” he said.
Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks said he supports a national identification system to help law enforcement ensure public safety. He added, however, that local law officers aren’t likely to put immigration law enforcement high on their priority list so long as people who may or may not be undocumented aliens are otherwise obeying the law.
Darryl Morin, a Latino and a Republican activist who founded Advanced Wireless Inc., said the Senate bill won’t turn illegal immigrants into citizens overnight. Rather, he noted, it allows them to step out of the shadows and begin a “very rigorous path” to documented status or citizenship — provided they pass background checks and a citizenship test.
Erich Straub, who runs a Milwaukee law firm specializing in immigration, said many native-born Americans would have trouble passing a citizenship test. “But I have never had a single client in my 20 years of practice fail that test. They take it very seriously,” he said. “It’s a point of pride for them.”
Immigration reform can help the Wisconsin economy at a time when the demographics of an aging society are chipping away at the state’s workforce, from its kitchens, farms and resorts to its research laboratories and tech companies.
In a global economy, Wisconsin looks much less international than even its neighbors. Compared to Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin has a smaller share of foreign-born population and total labor force, as well as fewer foreign-born business owners.
The gap is most glaring when it comes to keeping foreign-born workers with specific skills needed in a knowledge-based economy. The United States annually graduates about 40,000 foreign-born students with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, but only a fraction are allowed or encouraged to stay.
Wausau may not be on the front lines of the immigration debate – but it’s symbolic of how all states, including Wisconsin, can gain from rational changes in current law. The question is whether Congress can agree to get there.