Why group of Minnesota farmers support driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants
ST. PAUL — It’s a paradox:
Minnesota farmers, those northern European-stock, stoic symbols of the prairie, are standing alongside undocumented Mexicans, Guatemalans and Liberians who now call Minnesota home. Together, they’re supporting a Democratic-backed plan to offer driver’s licenses to people in this state, and the country, illegally.
The Minnesota House approved the plan Friday, mostly along partisan lines, with all but a few Republicans voting against it, many decrying it as an incentive for illegal immigration.
But there’s no question about backing: A major coalition of farm groups, as well as meat processors, the hospitality industry and even the conservative Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, have voiced strong support.
That’s because, in short, much of Minnesota’s economy, including much of the agricultural sector, relies not just on immigrant workers, but, according to those in the sector, on illegal immigrant workers.
“Everybody knows that it’s happening, and yet nobody does anything,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler acknowledged on the House floor Friday. “That is the reality.”
What’s going on?
Immigrant farm workers on the rise
Generations ago, a family worked a farm.
Then farms got bigger, and families got smaller, said Daryn McBeth, who represents Minnesota Milk Producers and the Midwest Food Producers Association.
“Farms used to have 10 to 50 head of dairy cows, but today the average size of a Minnesota dairy farm is 100,” McBeth said. “When the farms get bigger, they need workers — immigrant or not. The cows cannot not be milked.”
For various economic reasons, farms continue to grow. Meanwhile, the labor market has gotten tighter, especially in rural parts of the state, where the population has often fallen.
Tom Sedgeman, a third-generation dairy farmer in Sauk Center, said he’s seen the number of immigrant workers especially on the rise in central Minnesota in the last decade.
“It’s a labor shortage, and it’s work that most people don’t want to do,” said Sedgeman, who works 400 head of dairy cow. “It’s hard work, and it’s not the cleanest work, working on a dairy farm, or working in a meat plant or any of the other types of work in central Minnesota.”
‘Not an issue of pay’
Sedgeman described the jobs he’s generally talking about as “entry level” — work for unskilled workers.
The traditional resident labor force, he explained — the descendants of that northern European-stock of Minnesotans who’ve been there for generations — often enter the labor force with skills that can garner them better jobs. They’re not being displaced by immigrants, he emphasized.
“It’s not an issue of pay,” he said. “I hear about this $15 living wage in St. Paul and Minneapolis. I’m there. That’s what we pay — and this is where the housing stock and everything else is much cheaper.”
Why hire undocumented workers?
But people here illegally aren’t supposed to be hired, right?
Several representatives of business groups said that employers don’t want to hire undocumented workers — few knowingly do.
But they all know it happens.
Sedgeman, whose $2 million-a-year operation employs seven people, said he follows the law: He requests documentation and fills out the federal I-9 work authorization form as required. But he doesn’t hire a private investigator or somehow further vet the documentation he’s given.
“I don’t have a human resources department,” he said. “I get a little bit frustrated that as an employer, the burden is on me to figure out if someone is in this country illegally.”
In other words, as Sedgeman and others acknowledge, apparently some of these workers aren’t here legally.
System is ‘broken’ and fear is pervasive
That, in essence, is the often-described “broken” immigration system, come home to roost in rural Minnesota: A national immigration policy that, at various times, doesn’t allow enough legal immigration to fill the jobs that are needed. Workers here illegally flow into that vacuum. In recent years, they’ve flowed, along with legal immigrants, into the farms and processing plants of rural Minnesota.
And to get to those jobs, people need to drive.
But beyond that, Sedgeman said he believes many legal immigrants, including some he knows, are afraid to apply for driver’s licenses.
“There’s so much uncertainty about the immigration system, and so much fear among these people, what happens is that many are afraid that if they haven’t crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i,’ they’ll get in trouble if they apply for a license,” he said.
For Sedgeman, the answer is twofold: First, federal officials — the White House and Congress — “need to figure out the national immigration system.” But in the meantime, he said, Minnesota needs to allow them to get driver’s licenses.
He said the safety benefits — more drivers passing exams and carrying insurance — protect everyone, including people here legally.
“We want our families, and our employees, to be safe on the roads, that’s all,” he said.