Someday historians are going to look back at this period of history and wonder why a country that had large populations of unemployed citizens needed to have other people sneak into the country in order to meet its labor demands. I've been thinking about that since hearing representatives from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation calling for faster action on immigration reform to help stabilize their workforce. You have to ask why Wisconsin farms rely so heavily on new-to-the country workers when more than half of the African-American men in the city of Milwaukee are unemployed.
We see plenty of efforts to "bring the farm to the city"--with fresh food programs in public schools, farmers markets in every downtown across the state--and the State Fair beingl held in the largest metropolitan area in Wisconsin. But where is the effort to bring the city to the farm? I checked the on-line editions of the Milwaukee County Farm Bureau newsletters and I don't see anything about recruitment efforts for farm labor in any of them. There's nothing about posting jobs available in the industry or any training seminars for potential jobseekers. I don't see any Blacks in any of the pictures either (unless you count Rickie Weeks in the photo of the players on the field at Miller Park at the Young Farmers Association Brewers game). So why go through all of the hassle of worrying about if the guys you hired from Mexico and Central America are going to get picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at any time--when you can know that your staff was born here and are legal to work?
Of course, this has to be a two-way street. All of those unemployed African-American men have to be willing to do the work. Yes, it would require relocation, but consider that the immigrant worker already working on that farm came thousands of miles to work there--in a climate in which he is unfamiliar and where everyone else speaks a different language. And he can't "go home" on the weekend--because there is no guarantee he'll be able to get back in. Plus, we hear all the time about how the "culture" of the inner city is what "captures" these young men and turns them to lives of crime and drug abuse. Well, you can't get any further away from gangs, guns and drugs than to work on a farm in Potosi, Wisconsin.
Every time I head to Madison, I drive past the Wisconsin State Prison Farm along highway 151. Given the demographics of our prison population, you have to figure that many African-Americans are learning the skills of modern farming. Are they actually employing those skills upon their release? And are they spreading the word about the opportunities that exist in the field? Those immigrant workers don't just drive around the country looking for a farmer to hire them. They learn of job opportunities from relatives and friends--who heard about their jobs from relatives or friends.
If we are going to change the fortunes and the futures of the African-American communities not just in Wisconsin but in every other state, we need to make sure they have access to the jobs that are available in all segments of the market--the rest will have to be up to them.