Beyond Trump: America's Dairyland and Multiple Regimes of Mobility

"...there is value in using Trump’s stumping as an entry point for understanding the powerful systems that regulate the movements of migrants..."

Julie C. Keller

Speaking to a crowd of thousands of supporters in Dallas recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continued to vilify undocumented immigrants, declaring that the U.S. is the “dumping ground for the rest of the world; that “they’re all over the place”; and “it’s disgusting what’s happening to our country.” Given Trump’s leading position in the polls among other GOP candidates, this inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric appears to be resonating strongly with many conservative voters, who he describes as the “silent majority.”  Trump’s plan for immigration reform, as outlined on his campaign website, includes the construction of a wall at the Southern border funded by Mexico, ending birthright citizenship, and imposing financial penalties for cities that do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Described by fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio as a “freak show,” we could write off Donald Trump as merely a celebrity candidate pursuing a theatrical campaign for notoriety. We could refuse to engage with his platform. But there is value in using Trump’s stumping as an entry point for understanding the powerful systems that regulate the movements of migrants. For instance, Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his proposed policies are evidence of a particularly intensified version of what political sociologist Ronen Shamir (2005) refers to as a “global mobility regime,” one characterized by “the prevention of movement and the blocking of access” and “premised not only on ‘old’ national or local grounds but on a principle of perceived universal dangerous personhoods.” This apparent stance of absolute exclusion, however, contradicts the realities of neoliberalism, a system that depends upon the transnational movement of both capital and cheap, exploitable labor. Of course, when we set Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the narratives of migrants, we see an even more complicated relationship between inclusion and exclusion—particularly when it comes to mobility.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have extended Shamir’s framework by emphasizing multiple regimes of mobility, a plurality that indicates that regimes “normalize the movements of some travellers while criminalizing and entrapping the ventures of others” (see, e.g. Glick Schiller and N. Salazar 2013). Adding to this line of inquiry, I ask: How are migrant workers entrapped in these mobility regimes? And, how do they push against them? To make sense of these multiple regimes of mobility, I draw on my transnational research from 2010 to 2012 with a population of Veracruzanos from Mexico who work on Wisconsin dairy farms. All but four of the 60 migrants I interviewed were men, and the average age of participants was 31 years old. Approximately half were young men under 30. How are migrant workers entrapped in these mobility regimes? And how do they push against them? The narratives below reveal the complex relationship between mobility and immobility, particularly for teen migrants whose stories are not often made central in the mobility scholarship. By examining multiple mobility regimes and migrants’ relationships to them, we contribute toward alternative narratives to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump’s that has dominated the airwaves in recent months.

The Changing Dairy Industry in Wisconsin

Rising costs of production and lower milk prices have led many Wisconsin farmers on small and medium-sized operations—dairy farms with less than 100 cows, and between 100 and 499 cows, respectively—to expand their herd size. This pressure, paired with the perceived unreliability of local white Americans as milkers, and the emergence of new immigrant destinations, has resulted in a tremendous increase in low-wage immigrant workers on Wisconsin dairy farms in recent years. In 1999, immigrants made up just 5% of all hired dairy labor in the state. In 2008, sociologist Jill Harrison and colleagues (2009) conducted a survey of hired dairy workers in Wisconsin and estimated that immigrants made up over 40%. They found that the vast majority of immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin come from Mexico, with the states of Veracruz and Guanajuato listed as the most common states of origin. Most of those who migrate to work on dairy farms are men, and 63% of the immigrant workers surveyed were married. Many are not legally authorized to work in the U.S. and have very few workplace protections.

From Mexico to America’s Dairyland, and Back

I met the Ximetl family through a relative of theirs, the owner of a restaurant in the village of Xoxotutla, a rural pueblo in the state of Veracruz.* We were briefly introduced on their doorstep, where I met Doña Yamile and two of her sons, David and Rico. Both men told me they had worked on dairy farms in Wisconsin, just as their father, brother-in-law, uncles, and cousins had. When Doña Yamile invited me in to talk, I told the Ximetls that I wanted to know about what life was like in Wisconsin, and about how and why migration from Xoxotutla to Wisconsin started in the 1990s. The stories they shared, stories of life on the dairy farms, often began with stories of border crossings.

Rico, the youngest son of Doña Yamile, returned from Wisconsin just two months before I met him. He was 17 when he first went to El Norte, and he spent three years in Wisconsin. There, he worked at a medium-sized dairy farm for 75 hours a week, earning $700 every two weeks, with no days off. With his earnings, Rico had a house of his own built in his village on the lot just beyond his mother’s house. When I asked about life in Wisconsin, Rico described to me his motivations for migration:

“To make something, a house…To build a house and return…It’s why I went… Because to suffer on the border with the walk, no water, the food runs out, the heat, the cold. And so because of that, I thought, I suffered. And so, I have to make something (of myself). And thank god I did it. That’s why I went. To have a house, a car.”

Veracruz. Source: Julie C. Keller

Veracruz. Source: Julie C. Keller

Later, when I interviewed Rico’s brother, David, he explained that he and fellow travelers had come across a body in the desert, a migrant who had presumably died from dehydration and exposure to the elements. Rico’s older brothers explained that compared to the 1990s, the border was now very difficult to cross. The construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which accelerated with the 2006 Secure Fence Act, made crossing without detection much more treacherous. Although supporters of the wall claim it has been successful at deterring unauthorized crossings, what is clear is that the barrier has pushed migration routes to more isolated areas that pose more hazards, making it more profitable for smugglers and resulting in increased migrant deaths.

As he reflected upon his life in the U.S., it was clear that the harrowing journey across the desert shaped the way Rico viewed his work in Wisconsin.  The dangerous conditions on the border that Rico and others described have manufactured what some have termed “workaholic migrants” (Harrison and Lloyd 2011). In this sense, the border and the multiple risks it presents for migrants is part of a national mobility regime that determines migrantsrelationship to work after they enter the U.S. Mobility regimes such as this intersect with other regimes at various geographic scales or institutional arenas, with different sets of agents maintaining or thwarting movement.

We can identify aspects of a local mobility regime, for instance, by centering on immigrant destinations and how movement is facilitated or prevented at the level of communities. Toward the end of my interview with Rico, I asked him if while living in Wisconsin he felt like he was part of the community.

Rico: No, hardly…Almost no one liked us. A few, well, a few. Some people. My boss liked Mexicans because he said they are hard workers and people from there don’t like to work. So that’s why. But some people don’t. They get angry that we are there.

Julie: Who?

Rico: People from there…They don’t like what they see. They get angry.

Julie: Who, for instance? Shop owners?

Rico: People. People in the street. They’ll call the police. That’s why we hardly left. We work and that’s it. We were in the house when we were off, but we almost never left…Only to buy food. Not more than every couple weeks.

Racially marked as “other” in predominantly white towns, and without the protection of a secure legal status, many migrant workers spent their time off work in the trailer where they lived on the farmer’s property. This exclusion from the broader rural Wisconsin community that Rico described was echoed by other Veracruzanos who I interviewed. Back in Wisconsin, I met Alonso, a 24 year old dairy worker from Xoxotutla who was employed at a large-sized farm—with over 500 cows— located about 10 miles from the nearest town. It was his third stint in Wisconsin and he first went to El Norte in 2004, when he was 16 or 17 years old. Each time he stayed three to four years before returning to Mexico. I asked him about the most difficult part of life in Wisconsin:

 “We don’t have the freedom to come and go. We have problems with the police… [In Mexico] you can go out, you can go eat with your friends, you can have fun for a little while. It’s very different.”

Alonso did not have a car, and he would leave the farm only once or twice a month with other workers who owned cars. Still, driving was risky. Many workers were ticketed or sent to jail when they could not show police a valid driver’s licensee. For unauthorized migrants, any interaction with the police, even due to a minor offense, intensified the threat of deportation. When I visited Xoxotutla, David said that his boss in Wisconsin did not like it when his employees drove to town. In this sense, driving was doubly risky. Workers risked getting pulled over by law enforcement and possibly detained, and they also risked appearing insubordinate at work.

Wisconsin dairy farm. Source: Julie C. Keller

Wisconsin dairy farm. Source: Julie C. Keller

But the confines of this local mobility regime did not leave workers powerless. Employers typically could not prevent workers from seeking employment elsewhere, or stop them from leaving to return to Mexico at a moment’s notice. The farmers I interviewed frequently complained about workers who left with little warning, and they were concerned about how to keep those who they described as good workers. While in Xoxotutla, David called his former boss on the family’s land line and handed me the phone to introduce myself. The farmer described to me how wonderful David was as an employee, and that he would have him back in an instant if he could. David later told me that his boss wired money to him and his brothers in order to pay for them to cross again. Of course, the money was a loan that would be paid back from the worker’s paycheck.

Similar to the national mobility regime, the local mobility regime I describe here is embedded with deep contradictions. The movements of these young migrant workers on and off the farm are closely watched by employers and police alike, while their unauthorized movements northward across the border are encouraged—and even at times facilitated via loans—by farmers.

Juxtaposing Donald Trump’s stance on immigration with the narratives of migrant workers reveals just how complex regimes of mobility can be—their contradictions and intersections, as well as the various sets of agents involved in affirming them. Neoliberalism depends upon the cross-border movement of workers to fulfill economic demands for a deportable, and thus exploitable, low-wage labor force. Trump’s apparent position to universally exclude all unauthorized immigrants belies the state’s interest in maintaining the multiple mobility regimes in which transnational migrants, like the young men described here, are precariously situated. In observing campaign calls for ever more restrictive immigration policies, we should consider the various kinds of movement they are meant to both exclude and regulate. This study of the rapidly changing dairy industry in Wisconsin highlights these mobility tensions by revealing both the strong demand for cheap migrant labor as well as the confinement and surveillance that workers experience. Doing so will illuminate and disrupt popular tendencies to cast migrants as “dangerous personhoods,” as well as demystify “the frenzy of wall building today.” (Brown 2010: 79).  


*All names of participants, villages, and towns are pseudonyms.

Works Cited

Brown, W. 2010. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.

Glick Schiller, N. and N. Salazar. 2013. Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2):183-2000.

Harrison, J.L. and S.E. Lloyd. 2011. Illegality at Work: Deportability and the Productive New Era of Immigration Enforcement. Antipode 44(2):365-385.

Shamir, R. 2005. Without Borders? Notes on Globalization as a Mobility Regime. Sociological Theory 23(2):197–215.

Julie C. Keller, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island. She is currently writing a book based on her research on immigrant dairy workers entitled, Laboring in Limbo: Migration and Mobility from Mexico to America’s Dairyland and Back. This research was made possible with funding from the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant.