The author of “Mexicans in Wisconsin” spoke at the University of Wisconsin Historical Society Tuesday about the prejudice migrant workers face in the state today.
Sergio Gonzalez, a UW Department of History doctoral candidate, discussed his book which was released Friday and covers the conditions Waupon, WI migrants encountered in 1949.
“[Waupun migrants had] tenuous economic and social standing as they faced substandard housing, poor wages, and discrimination,” Gonzalez said.
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Guest worker programs through Mexico and the Caribbean offered solutions to worker shortages during World War II, when thousands moved from rural to urban areas. Gonzalez said Wisconsin contracted approximately 4,800 of these workers.
When they arrived in America, they received poor housing and medical care because they were viewed as “economic tools” rather than people. Traveling as families, migrant workers primarily did agricultural work.
Migrants organized labor unions to fight for change on their own terms, since laws were not being enforced to protect them.
Today, many migrants, both documented and undocumented, remained employed by the agricultural industry, and their work is important to the state economy. Gonzalez said Wisconsin’s rural population is shrinking and cannot support the needs of the dairy industry.
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“Eighty percent of hired help on large Wisconsin dairy farms are actually made up of immigrant labor, a majority of whom come from Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “Without Mexican laborers, documented or undocumented, Wisconsin’s dairy industry would collapse.”
He said the state government is currently considering legislation which would threaten local laws that protect migrant workers by banning sanctuary cities.
Last Wednesday, people gathered at the Capital to protest the legislation which he addressed.Gonzalez encouraged audience members to take action themselves by contacting their local legislators to tell them they’re opposed to the legislation.
“Many of the people who are being targeted today have lived in this state for decades,” Gonzalez said.