How a Fire on a Dairy Farm Led Us to More Than a Year’s Worth of Stories About Immigrant Dairy Workers — ProPublica


In the summer of 2021, I had just returned to work from maternity leave and was scouting around for my next story. By chance, I was connected with an immigrant rights advocate who told me about a fatal fire a few years earlier in a house for workers at a large dairy farm in southwestern Michigan. Two Mexican immigrant workers had died.

Until then, I hadn’t thought about the immigrants who work — and often live — on America’s dairy farms. I am the daughter of immigrants, and I grew up in Michigan. But much of what I knew about immigrant labor was about people who work in other industries: construction, factories, restaurants. Dairy work was unfamiliar terrain.

I began requesting records related to the fire, but soon other stories pulled me away. It took close to a year before I was able to return my focus to that fire and the broader issues affecting immigrant dairy workers. I requested logs of 911 calls tied to some of the largest farms in the Midwest. The records I received showed a dark slice of life: horrific accidents, unpaid wages, problems with overcrowded housing and extreme isolation. I also got records from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and saw how limited that agency is in its ability to investigate deaths and injuries on smaller farms.

From the start, one case stood out: the death of a Nicaraguan boy named Jefferson Rodríguez, who lived on a dairy farm in Wisconsin with his father, a worker there. The sheriff’s report was devastating: The boy had been run over by a skid steer, a 6,700-pound piece of machinery used to scrape manure off barn floors. Just one deputy investigating what happened spoke any Spanish. When she interviewed José, the boy’s father, he was almost incoherent. Eventually, the deputy concluded that José had been operating the skid steer, and the boy’s death was ruled an accident. But José was publicly blamed. Local media covered what happened as the tragic story of an immigrant who accidentally killed his son. It appeared that reporters never spoke with José or any of the other workers on the farm that night.

The first time I visited Wisconsin, I looked for José. I drove past the farm where Jefferson had died to get a sense of the place, then pulled over in a spot where my phone got reception and searched for the nearest Mexican restaurant. Once there, I went straight to the kitchen and asked if anybody from Nicaragua worked there. I couldn’t imagine there would be many immigrants from that part of Central America in this tiny community a little north of Madison. As luck would have it, a man from northern Nicaragua came out and told me he had once worked with José on a different farm. Later, during his lunch break, we went to his apartment and I watched as he sent José a voice message on WhatsApp about me. José told him he could give me his phone number.

Until this moment, I assumed that law enforcement had gotten the story right. But in the weeks and months that followed, I learned about an entirely different version of events from José, his attorney and dozens of immigrants in the community: Another worker, on his first day on the job and with little training, had accidentally run over the boy. Deputies never spoke to that man, who like José was undocumented.

Around this time, my colleague Maryam Jameel joined me in the reporting. Like me, she is bilingual and the daughter of immigrants. As an engagement reporter, she has given a lot of thought to how we find and get our journalism to hard-to-reach communities. We knew that writing about Jefferson’s death and the broader issues affecting dairy workers would be difficult. Workers are isolated, often living in old houses or trailers on the farms. Workers routinely put in 12 to 18 hours a day and are exhausted. And they’re afraid of losing their jobs and their housing, or getting deported, if they speak out.

It took months to convince José, who was in the midst of a wrongful death lawsuit against the farm, to sit down for a lengthy interview. He finally did one morning in December 2022 in a cold mobile home on the farm where he now works. As José described his decision to make the dangerous trek across Central America and Mexico with his oldest son, Maryam and I wept. Once in Wisconsin, José and his son moved into a room above a milking parlor, the barn where cows are milked day and night. (In a deposition, the farm owners said workers only stayed in the rooms above the parlor between shifts or when the weather was bad. More than a half-dozen former workers and visitors to the farm told us that Jefferson, his father and other workers lived there.)

José told us he knew people in his community thought he was an irresponsible father. And he was bewildered by law enforcement; he wondered if deputies didn’t ask him direct questions about the accident because they felt sorry for him. That day, he seemed relieved to talk, as if he’d been waiting for somebody to ask him what had happened that night on the farm.

We spent months searching for others who worked on the farm, including the worker who accidentally killed Jefferson. He’d left the state and was trying to start over. He was scared to talk, but Maryam — in her gentle but persistent way — was able to convince him to do so. We also interviewed the deputy who questioned José the night his son died. We discovered she’d made a grammatical error in Spanish that led her to misunderstand what had happened.

Maryam and I tried to write this story with nuance and empathy. It was important to us to show every person’s humanity and agency, particularly the immigrants we interviewed who rarely saw themselves as victims but live and work in conditions that few Americans can imagine for themselves.

After we published the story about Jefferson’s death, we continued our reporting, interviewing more than 130 current and former dairy workers. We wrote about the consequences for Wisconsin’s dairy industry and workers of a state law that bans undocumented immigrants from driving. We examined OSHA’s haphazard track record of investigating deaths on small farms in Wisconsin and across the country. And we wrote about how workers are routinely injured on dairy farms — then discarded, fired and evicted. Many were unable to get help to treat their injuries, as small farms are excluded from the state’s workers’ compensation requirements.

And on Tuesday, we published a story about the unregulated, often substandard housing that many dairy farms provide for their immigrant workers. Because dairy jobs are year-round — unlike seasonal agricultural work such as picking cherries or tomatoes — many federal and state laws covering migrant farmworker rights, including housing standards, don’t apply. As a result, employer-provided housing on dairy farms typically doesn’t get inspected.

Which brings me back to the fatal house fire in southwestern Michigan that left two immigrant workers dead in the early hours of April 25, 2018.

This month, I dug out the inch-thick, green file folder where I’d stashed the records I had begun collecting back in the summer of 2021. The workers’ employer, Riedstra Dairy, provided lodging to the two men who died and a half-dozen others in a house a few miles from the farm in the town of Mendon, according to records.

Because dairy workers don’t meet the state’s definition of migrant workers, the house wasn’t required to undergo an inspection by the state’s migrant labor housing program. And so it hadn’t been inspected, according to a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The house for workers at Riedstra Dairy after the April 2018 fire

St. Joseph’s Sheriff’s Office

The local Fire Department investigated the blaze, as did the Michigan State Police. Neither could determine what caused it.

In a phone interview, the farm’s owner told me that the house was routinely inspected by a third party who, just a few weeks before the fire, had ensured there were working smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers. “We want our people to be safe,” he said.

Reading through the files again, I remembered what it felt like to be back at the beginning of a new project, learning about the lives and deaths of the people who, as one sociologist put it, are “milking in the shadows” of America’s Dairyland.

The men died from smoke inhalation; they were likely sleeping at the time of fire. The others were either working a 12-hour shift or buying groceries in a nearby town. One later told police that as they returned from the store, they found themselves “following a fire truck and then they realized it was their home that was burning,” according to one report.

After the fire, the local American Red Cross provided the remaining workers with emergency lodging and funds to cover urgent needs. The Mexican Consulate in Detroit helped arrange for the bodies to be sent home.

A consular official who interviewed the survivors in the days after the fire encouraged me to keep looking into the broader issues affecting immigrant dairy workers. “They’re just the most vulnerable people,” he said. “And it’s really difficult to get them to talk about any work-related incidents happening, perhaps because of fear of retaliation. They don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Maryam and I are still finishing up a few pieces for our “America’s Dairyland” series. We are also putting together a guide in Spanish for dairy workers in Wisconsin who get injured on the job, and we’re following up on some tips about assaults and racism on dairy farms.

After that, we want to look more broadly at other stories to pursue this year at the intersection of labor and immigration. If you have an idea, we’d love to hear it.

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