Damakant Jayshi

A Marathon County committee on Thursday approved an initiative to write to federal authorities supporting legal immigration status for two dairy owners who will likely have to leave the country if their application to stay in the country fails.

After a discussion about whether the county Board of Supervisors should be supporting such a move and concerns about the precedent it would set, the Extension, Education and Economic Development Committee endorsed a letter from the Board Chair Kurt Gibbs to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security supporting renewal of nonimmigrant investment visa applications by Ronaldus and Ester Van Langen. The couple, who are from the Netherlands, overstayed their legal visa status by two years.

The EEED Committee discussed the Van Langens’ visa application after a draft of the letter of support from Chair Gibbs was added to the agenda “in the last couple of days” before the Thursday’s meeting, according to Sara Guild, chair of EEED Committee. She added the letter of support for the Van Langens was initiated by Paul Daigle of the Conservation, Planning and Zoning department of Marathon County with help from Gibbs. The Van Langen farm is in Edgar, which is part of Dist. 32 – the area Gibbs represents.

In his letter to the USCIS, Gibbs said the Van Langens have for more than a decade owned and operated a profitable 140-cow dairy operation in the county.

“They have made a significant investment that annually generates a $34,000 economic impact per cow for a total of approximately $4 million per year,” Gibbs wrote.

Addressing the committee, Gibbs said this is the first time that he has faced such a situation, describing it as “special set of unique circumstances” caused partially by restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and partially by possibly some misinformation received by Van Langens. Later, he told Wausau Pilot & Review that he was not aware of the County Board ever dealing with an immigration issue during his 16 years on the Board.

He also said he is unsure about the outcome.

The fate of Van Langens brought to the forefront a similar situation faced by immigrants from other countries, particularly people of color.

Supervisor Thomas Rosenberg who said the case had merit and clear economic impact asked whether the Board has taken similar steps in the past, adding he was concerned with the precedent it would set.

“Clearly we need to send this (letter) but how do we turn the next one down?” Rosenberg said, while asking for guidance on the matter.

Guild responded by saying that her past work related to immigration suggested the situation was not a “Level 1 request” since there has already been a denial of renewal and the Van Langens are in an appeal stage, which happens less frequently.

“I don’t believe we will be inundated,” Guild said.

During public comments, Will Hsu, president of Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises, asked the committee to support the application. Hsu said his employees, both temporary and permanent, face the risk of lost opportunity, income and right to work every day.

“They are law-abiding and tax-paying and for some of them their greatest dream is to find a way to legally immigrate and become a citizen of our great country,” he said.

Hsu said he hoped the committee and the county would extend similar support to other immigrants who wished to settle and work in the area. “Your action today will speak louder than your words in the past.”

Vice chair of EEED, Ka Lo, who supports the initiative, said she was conflicted with some of her Board colleagues’ comments on the ‘A Community for All’ resolution over the last year and half and added their views and decision on the resolution ran counter to the current efforts to help the dairy owners stay legally in the county.

“Those conversations and discussions were about diversity, inclusion and welcoming people to our community…and that was all said in the resolution,” Lo said, adding that she is eager to know what Board members who opposed the resolution felt about the letter. Lo suggested the case presented an opportunity to conduct an immigration-related study.

The ‘A Community for All Resolution’ – a much watered down from the original draft – failed in August as the County Board of Supervisors deadlocked on their vote 18-18, with one member excused and another post vacant in the 38-member body. Two of the supervisors who had contributed to the weakened resolution turned against at the last moment.

One of the supervisors on the EEED committee, Gary Beastrom, voted against the resolution but put forward a motion to endorse the letter. All EEED Committee members who were present (in person/Webex/phone) voted to send the letter. Two members of the EEED Committee who are among the supervisors who opposed the resolution were absent during Thursday’s meeting.

Supervisor Jean Maszk, who is not a member of the committee, said she went through a similar process with her daughter-in-law, who is from the Philippines, and said the experience was threatening. She said the county needs productive people like the dairy owners, and voiced her support for the initiative. She voted against the CFA resolution on Aug. 25.

Guild, Gibbs and Rosenberg were among those who voted in favor of the resolution.

Van Langen explained his efforts to resume his legal immigration status by saying he applied for a Green Card, which allows people to live and work legally in the U.S., with the help of then-U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in September 2018. Later, he learned he would likely need to wait 26 months before hearing an answer from USCIS on the couple’s application. The visa renewal deadline fell within the 26 months, in October 2019.

Van Langen then asked Duffy about next steps.

“They advised us to go to the USCIS office in Minneapolis and ask all my questions that I had,” Van Langen said. It was not clear who he meant  by “they”.

To add to the complexity, Van Langen said, a USCIS officer in Minneapolis told him that as long as his application for the Green Card was pending, he had to stay in the U.S. But the terms of an E2 visa requires that he leave the U.S. every two years before filing for renewal. Had the application been denied, Van Langen would have had no problem renewing his E2 visa.

Van Langren ultimately withdrew his Green Card application and filed for a retroactive renewal for the period of Oct. 2019 to Oct. 2021, but by that period he was already overstaying his visa. After hearing an “intention to deny” from the USCIS, he approached county officials, explaining that he and his wife had overstayed their legal status and were at risk of being repatriated.

“We hope this help works and if it doesn’t work, we will have to leave the United States, we have to sell our farm and we will not be able to come back for 10 years,” said Van Langen, who started his farm with 31 cows and 28 acres before expanding to 140 cows and 440 acres.

The E2 nonimmigrant investment visa allows citizens from certain treaty countries to live and work in the United States if they make a “substantial amount of capital in a U.S. business.”

The U.S. and the Netherlands signed the treaty of commerce and navigation in 1957. E2 visas allows an individual a maximum initial stay of two years and can be renewed every two years. There is no limit to the renewals granted.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.