State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and school board president Trisha Zunker, D-Wausau, debate by teleconference on May 4.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua (lower left), and school board president and associate justice for the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, Tricia Zunker, D-Wausau (lower right), debate by teleconference Monday. (Screen image of Wisconsin Public Radio debate site)

Congressional candidates show stark difference in example of how to treat sick, undocumented farm workers

In a virtual debate Monday between the two candidates to fill the 7th Congressional seat in northwestern Wisconsin, it was the answers provided on undocumented workers and their healthcare needs during the COVID-19 outbreak that shed light on how each viewed immigration, healthcare and the state’s farming industry. 

The hour-long debate featured  Tricia Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board and an associate justice for the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, and two-term Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minoqua, who has spent roughly 20 years operating Wilderness Cruises on the Willow Flowage. 

They are running in Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Sean Duffy who stepped down in September to spend more time with his family and an infant daughter with health complications. 

Roughly 40 percent of the state’s farm workers are migrant workers and a quarter of those are undocumented, said the debate’s co-moderator Shereen Siewert, host of WPR’s Wausau-based regional news. Siewert then asked Tiffany and Zunker how they would address the working conditions and healthcare needs of this workforce. 

Tiffany, 62, said the first priority should be securing the border in order to understand who is coming in and out of the country, control sex trafficking and restrict the movement of methaphamine across the border.

“Beyond that, I believe in terms of healthcare their home country should be helping them out,” Tiffany said. “If they are not here legally, they should go to their home country wherever that is and they should get their healthcare needs covered in that location.”

Zunker, 39, said she believes in a secure border that comes through comprehensive immigration reform. She said she has been to farms across the 7th Congressional District and is glad the workers are there to help the farmers. Zunker said she supports a pathway to citizenship for tax-paying, law-abiding individuals and a pathway to citizenship for those who came here as children. 

“I think this notion that people should return to their home country for healthcare is cruel, it’s inhuman, it defies logic and it is only going to hurt our businesses here, businesses that rely on this labor,” said Zunker in response to Tiffany’s answer. “Individuals that are here and getting sick because of the coronavirus should absolutely have healthcare and have their healthcare needs met.”

Zunker added, “as an indigenous woman, I can say first and foremost that diversity in this country is a beautiful thing.”

Tiffany said asking the taxpayers of America “to provide healthcare for illegals” is not fair. 

“Now I understand they are seeking a better life but you have to come here legally,” Tiffany said. “ Future Congresses need to tackle having a secure border and having people get here legally.”

Zunker responded by telling Tiffany “no human being is illegal,” saying an individual might be undocumented, they might not have citizenship status, but they “are not illegal.”

“What I am hearing from my opponent is advocacy for the exploitation of workers. Let’s allow them to be here until they are sick. No. We absolutely cannot allow for the exploitation of any human being,” Zunker said. “I support our farmers being able to have the labor that they have– these are jobs that other people don’t want and they are jobs that need to be done. Our farmers will be hurt, our small businesses will be hurt if these individuals become sick. The right thing to do, the moral thing to do, the ethical thing to do is to make sure that they have the healthcare that they need.”

The candidates also did not agree on how the country’s healthcare system should operate in upcoming years. Tiffany said Medicaid for all will lead to Medicaid for none, while Zunker said the Affordable Care Act needs to be expanded and improved upon, with an ongoing focus on covering people with pre-existing conditions.

Zunker repeatedly referred to Tiffany as a rubber stamp for Trump’s policies due to his views on opposing universal background checks prior to the purchase of a firearm, support of renegotiated trade deals, and ceding environmental control to states.

In summing up his views, Tiffany said a vote for him is a vote in support of a secure border, defense of the 2nd amendment, protection of the unborn and “holding China accountable for what they’ve done to the world.”

Zunker said, if elected, she will advocate for affordable healthcare, economic security for all Wisconsinites, lower prescription drug costs by taking on big pharmaceutical companies, providing the help that is needed for small businesses and farmers and expanding rural broadband access.

The winner of Tuesday’s special election will then be up for re-election in November.