DURAND (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) — In the driveway of a two-story house on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, five men focus on a unique construction project. Using a drill, hammer and nails, plywood and rope, they work together in the afternoon sun to erect a structure that resembles a makeshift corral in the bed of a Honda pickup.
Every so often, Luisa Tepole, 25, carries a suitcase or packaged appliance out of the house, handing it to her husband, Miguel Hernandez, 36.
By the end of the night, the back of the truck is piled high with bags of clothes and shoes, TV sets in boxes and a bucket of children’s toys, ready for the 2,300-mile drive to Veracruz, Mexico.
Farm owners Doug and Toni Knoepke watch Hernandez and the other workers from a few feet away as they load their two-truck caravan. It looks like a scene from “The Grapes of Wrath,” Doug Knoepke remarks, referring to the movie about the mass migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s.
Only this time, it is in reverse: The migrants are leaving a land abundant with economic opportunity for an uncertain future in their homeland.
Hernandez has been working on the Knoepkes’ farm in Pepin County for 16 years. He shares this home with his wife and two young sons, Thomas, 5, and Liam, 4.
Earlier in the day, at Thomas’ last day at Noah’s Ark Preschool in Durand, he cries as he tells his classmates that he will not be starting kindergarten with them in the fall. He has never been to Mexico.
On June 1, Hernandez and four other men, who for years have milked and cared for cows on dairy farms among the hills of western Wisconsin, drive away in the direction of their mountainous hometown of Texhuacan. A few days later, Tepole and the children fly out of Chicago.
The Hernandez family is leaving, in part, because of the threat of deportation — which could ban them from returning to the United States for 10 years — and what they describe as increasingly harsh rhetoric by President Donald Trump and others toward immigrants, especially those here illegally.
They moved here to America’s Dairyland, the nation’s top cheese state and No. 2 milk producer, attracted by a dairy industry dependent on undocumented immigrant labor to keep cows milked three times a day, year-round. They have raised their children in communities where American workers stopped answering “help wanted” ads for cow milkers long ago.
And now, they are going home.
Report by: Alexandra Hall, a Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow