February 18, 2016, was a watershed day for Voces de la Frontera in how we approach rural organizing in Wisconsin. Voces is a statewide, member-led organization advocating for immigrant and racial justice, workers rights, and education rights. We are Wisconsin’s leading immigrant rights organization with a history of organizing mass protests and strikes.

On February 18, tens of thousands of workers and their families traveled to the State Capitol for a statewide strike that we call a Day Without Latinxs and Immigrants. They left their jobs, closed their businesses, took their kids out of school, and organized student walk-outs to fight against a state anti-sanctuary bill that was about to be signed into law. The bill would have legalized racial profiling and turned all public employees, from city clerks to police, into arms of immigration enforcement. The call to action — “no work, no school, no shopping” — reached into rural communities in every corner of the state, with the help of social media, cell phones, and deep relational organizing.

Wisconsin farmers became aware of the strike because their Latinx dairy workers told them they were going to the Capitol to defend their families. It was this bottom-up approach that created the crisis that forced the Dairy Business Association, which represents large dairy businesses, to join our efforts to defeat the racist anti-immigrant bill. Two days before the strike, Voces de la Frontera held an emergency meeting with farmers to draft an open letter calling on farmworkers and farmers to support each other by forming skeleton crews to care for the cows while the rest of the workers struck. In turn, farmers used their voices to lobby Republican state leaders to defeat the bill. 

The sacrifice, courage, and unity that made the strike possible bore fruit. In a red, gerrymandered state, the people defeated the anti-sanctuary bill. The rural workforce played a particularly significant role in changing the votes of Republican state leaders. Wisconsin is the dairy state. Dairies with immigrant labor produce 79 percent of the nation's milk supply, and Wisconsin is no exception. Wisconsin’s dairy industry employs more than 157,000 people — more than half of whom are immigrants, and dairy brings the state $46 billion in revenue and $9 billion in wages annually. The loss of immigrant labor would be economically devastating. 

The 2016 strike was not the first time we wielded such power. Voces de la Frontera has consistently organized mass protests and community-wide strikes to defeat state and local policy threats. Galvanized by the 2016 strike, we also began making inroads into rural organizing — building collective power that we’re now using to flip Wisconsin in the upcoming elections. 




Voces has been organizing in Wisconsin since 1998, primarily around immigrant rights. In the early 2000s, when Latinx workers faced threats of termination because of federal Social Security Number No-Match Letters (intended to help workers get credit for their social security contributions), we held Know Your Rights trainings, informed employers of their legal obligations, and, when necessary, threatened work stoppages, public actions, and boycotts. Voces helped thousands of workers protect their livelihoods through these very local, workplace-based fights. 

Our organization has a strong commitment to supporting workers from retaliation, organizing disciplined peaceful actions, and bringing forward leaders from within the community. We believe in empowering immigrant workers to act on their own behalf and take leadership in their own struggles. This approach has allowed us to build deep relationships of trust with immigrant communities and to develop bottom-up organizing across the state.

Voces sees immigration as a class issue. We have a history of organizing immigrant workers around work stoppages to fight for their rights on the job in a context of weak or nonexistent labor protections — and to challenge dangerous immigration policies at the local, state, and federal level. In March 2005, we organized the first Day Without Latinxs community strike as part of a national wave of strikes to defeat the threat of a draconian federal bill that would have criminalized people who were out of legal immigration status and those who did not turn them in to ICE. On May Day of that same year, we organized an even larger mass strike as part of a national push for federal immigration reform. May Day soon became a Wisconsin tradition, with workers taking time off, students organizing in schools, and small, immigrant-owned businesses shutting down to join this pro-immigrant protest. 


Expanding Our Reach

Voces used the 2016 strike to grow our statewide presence in both cities and rural communities. We did it in two ways: by asking our leaders from the previous statewide strike to establish new Voces chapters in their communities and by deepening our alliances with farmer associations. 

We had a history of working with farmers. In 2007, we partnered with the Dairy Business Association as part of the effort to restore driver licenses to immigrants who had lost them with the implementation of REAL ID. That year, we also forged important connections with individual farmers through a statewide Reality Tour on immigration. 

We used the 2016 strike to build a partnership with the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU). The WFU represents small- and medium-sized farmers who share a common plight with many immigrant farm workers: laws and trade agreements that favor large corporations and agribusiness over small family farms, which has led to farm closures as well as forced migration to the U.S.

The WFU took on an active role in defeating the state anti-sanctuary bill in 2016 (and again in 2017, when it was reintroduced). The group also took part in our 2018 campaign to restore driver licenses for immigrants. Farmers rode on buses from Manitowoc to the State Capitol to lobby the state legislature as part of our diverse delegation. The WFU represents an important constituency capable of influencing Republicans representing rural districts, which depend on immigrant labor. Farmers understand that immigration is critical to the survival of rural communities and are becoming a key partner in our efforts to advance policies that make our communities more welcoming to immigrants. 


Mobilizing the Resistance

We continued to build our alliance with the WFU in the wake of the 2016 elections, as we saw emboldened prejudice in our communities and a national backlash against the advancements that the movement had made under the Obama administration. We organized rapid response teams and statewide Know Your Rights trainings to protect families from deportation in both urban and rural communities. Because of our investment in relationship-building and leadership development in rural communities, we were able to shine a spotlight on raids in rural Wisconsin that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

In February 2017, we mobilized for another Day Without Latinxs to stop 287g, a federal program to turn local law enforcement into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents as a tool for mass deportations. We also demanded the resignation of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who was promising to implement 287g on the ground in Wisconsin. 

We created tools for people to self-organize and shared them over social media, on our website, and through our statewide chapters, which distributed flyers in schools, workplaces, churches, and supermarkets. We activated our youth chapters and reached out to our small business allies. The response was massive. We estimate 60,000 participated in the strike. 

As we prepared to march to the Milwaukee County courthouse, Clarke issued a public statement warning that he would not ensure our safety if we came. He falsely claimed to have sheriff deputies from the surrounding area waiting to meet us. We made the choice to move forward. We were joined by local and national media as well as Black elected county leaders, victims of Clarke’s abuses, and religious leaders, who joined us at the front of the march. As we crossed the bridge towards our destination, we were met by around one hundred Muslim allies. Our action was picked up on social media, leading to a spontaneous national Day Without Latinxs in major cities across the country to protest the Trump administration’s draconian immigration measures.

We organized yet another National Day Without Latinx strike for May 1, 2017, this time in partnership with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and our national immigrant rights network, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM). Again, tens of thousands turned out.

In the face of mounting pressure and a pending election, Clarke announced his resignation in May 2017, and 287g failed. But State Republicans kept pushing, re-introducing legislation in July to make Wisconsin an anti-sanctuary state. Building on our alliances with dairy farmers, as well as religious, community, and labor organizations, we organized two statewide lobby days under the theme, “Got Milk? Not Without Immigrants.” Delegations delivered milk cartons bearing that message to state legislators. With the public threat that Voces would organize yet another two-day strike at the State Capitol, the bill was dropped. 

These powerful actions, based in deep organizing and strategic coalition building, once again led to the defeat of the bill. 


Electoral Organizing 

In the lead up to the November 2020 elections, Voces de la Frontera Action (our c4 arm) is building a network of 23,000 Latinx, youth, and pro-immigrant rural voters (our “Voceros”) —  23,000 representing the margin by which Trump won Wisconsin in 2016. Even a small increase in Latinx turnout could tip the 2020 elections, as statewide elections are often decided by less than one percent of the vote. There are an estimated 183,000 Latinx voters in Wisconsin, the youngest and fastest-growing population in the state. More than 28,000 Latinx youth who were too young to vote in 2016 will have reached voting age this year.

Our Voceros program takes a different approach than most electoral organizing. For years, including in 2016, Democrats relied heavily on expensive TV ads and traditional canvassing, where paid staff members use out-of-date voter lists to contact people they don’t know and will never see again

But this stranger-to-stranger approach doesn’t work for many Latinxs who don’t appear on the voter rolls because they move often, vote infrequently, or are new voters. Nor will it work for those of us who would never open a door to a stranger who might turn out to be an agent from ICE. Our Voceros program leverages relationships among people who already know one another, which data shows increases voter turnout more than any other single outreach method.

Just six weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, we met with 410 of our members throughout the state and asked them to look through their phones and Facebook profiles to help us identify 5,600 eligible voters. Nearly seven in ten of them were so-called ‘low propensity’ voters who would have been ignored by traditional campaigns. Our members, known as Voceros, kept in touch with them and made sure they voted.

This new strategy has worked. We saw a 17 percent increase in the Latinx wards we turned out in 2018 compared to the previous midterm election, ushering in a slew of pro-immigrant candidates, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and State Treasurer. In the Milwaukee wards with the highest density of Latinx voters, voter turnout increased by 28 percent.

One of our greatest challenges is how to work around gerrymandering, which has artificially maintained a Republican majority in the state legislature that is unresponsive to farmers, Latinxs, and immigrants. Breaking the Republican-manufactured stronghold requires a continued commitment to rural organizing, an electoral breakthrough in November, and ongoing pressure on elected officials of both political parties.

The network we are building to mobilize the vote builds on Voces’s model of deep organizing, as we are creating stronger ties among our base as we turn out new voters in November. We remain committed to building this movement to ensure our voices are heard and justice prevails. As the Wisconsin Farmers Union youth group promised at its state convention, we’ll work towards the collective good with “a clean heart and clean hands.” iSí, se puede!

Read the entire issue on Organizing in Rural America. 



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