Hanging onto hope in Lac qui Parle County: Dutch farmer finds support for efforts to stay in U.S.
ROSEN — Kor Mulder was on the phone talking to a TV news reporter from his homeland in the Netherlands when yet another reporter walked into the kitchen of his farm home.
Earlier in the day he had been talking to a reporter from New York who was going to make the trek to Mulder's 350-head dairy farm that's perched on the wide-open spaces of western Lac qui Parle County.
A Twin Cities TV station had already been there twice and Mulder was struggling to schedule all the new requests for interviews between his milking chores.
The fleet of reporters, including from the West Central Tribune, were looking for a story on how this hard-working immigrant — who has been farming here with his family for 18 years — was getting ready to give up on his American dream and go back to his native country because of what he says is a broken, unfair system of getting a green card or becoming a U.S. citizen.
"It's just not right," Mulder said.
He said he's here as a legal immigrant but still can't obtain the permanent residency granted by a green card.
"It's not as easy as people think to become a citizen," he said. "We're not doing anything wrong."
Mulder has been fighting that system for many years, spending tens of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees and writing letters to lawmakers pleading his case to keep his family here, without any luck.
"We tried everything. We tried the left door and the right door, do this, do that, and nothing helps," he said. "So we figured it's a hopeless case."
There had been an occasional news story about the family's struggle, including last year when Mulder's oldest son, Garion, was forced to return to the Netherlands when he turned 21, but it didn't sway U.S. immigration services.
His other son, Kelsey, turns 21 this summer and is also required under the current visa to return to the Netherlands.
With the prospect of being left alone to milk his cows — and with his own visa needing to be renewed, Mulder told his neighbors he was going to pack up his house, sell his cows and leave.
But that's when the wheel really started to squeak.
Coming to America
Mulder had operated a small, 35-head dairy farm in the Netherlands. But regulations, cost and proximity to urban areas made it difficult to grow and make a living for his wife and young family.
Eager for a new chance at farming, Mulder said he was enticed by a South Dakota marketing campaign to move to the Midwest to start a dairy operation.
He said the campaign included plans for Europeans to use an E-2 investor visa to come here, buy a farm and find success.
He knew at the time there were limitations with this type of visa, which does not guarantee a green card or path to citizenship and allows minor children to stay only until they turn 21.
But since his sons were 3½ and 2½ years old then, Mulder said he was assured by ag company representatives at these marketing expos that there would be plenty of time to figure out the permanent residency issue once his family was here.
"In the back of your mind, you know that this land was built on immigrants," he said. "I'm just a few generations later."
So, in 2001, he decided to grab an opportunity to farm here in hopes the operation would grow big enough to support his sons and their future families.
He found a small farm he could afford just across the South Dakota border near the tiny town of Rosen, Minnesota, and he and his wife and sons settled in and started working.
The barns on the 11-acre farm were already set up for milking and Mulder started buying cows and feed, paid taxes and became part of the community. His kids grew up and went to school here. He's on the Rosen softball team and has a beer with the guys afterward.
Farming wasn't easy at first. Issues with stray voltage and salmonella resulted in livestock losses, but the farm now has 35 acres and 350 head of cattle, including a 175-head milking herd. A new home was built to replace the old farmhouse.
Every few years Mulder's E-2 visa has to be renewed, which requires a trip back to the Netherlands and thousands of dollars. He also has to renew an I-94 form every couple years and sign state papers every January that allow a foreign citizen to own farmland in Minnesota.
Over the years there were numerous meetings with immigration officials and attorneys — and again more money spent — to find a way for Mulder to get a green card and for his children to become citizens.
He said an E-2 investor visa could lead to a green card if he had 10 employees. But even though he's invested about $1.5 million in his farm, Mulder said he can't afford to operate a big enough dairy to hire 10 people.
The other option is to marry a U.S. citizen. Mulder and his wife recently divorced and she moved back to the Netherlands. But Mulder said even if he, or his sons, married a U.S. citizen today, it could take years before citizenship would be granted.
Even after living and farming here for 18 years, "to the government I'm still a visitor," he said.
So, with one son gone and another leaving shortly and his own visa set to expire, Mulder said he gave up hope and threw in the towel.
"We all gave up," he said. "It's over and out. That's what we decided in January after a long discussion with an immigration lawyer."
He started packing up his house in preparation to leave. The walls are bare and there's a stack of cardboard boxes in the corner of the living room. If the winter hadn't been so cold, he said half of his young stock would have already been sold.
An editorial a few weeks ago in the Western Guard newspaper about the eminent demise of Mulder Dairy Farm suddenly got the attention of lawmakers, candidates and reporters eager to hear Mulder's story.
Some lawmakers are using it as an example of problems with the current immigration system that seemingly penalizes people who are here working hard and investing in their communities.
A neighbor started an online petition that has more than 38,000 signatures — with the count going up each minute. It's signed by people all over the country and is addressed to Gov. Tim Walz, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Tina Smith, Rep. Collin Peterson and Lee Francis Cissna, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Buoyed by the support and renewed interest, Mulder now has hope. "The response nationwide is unbelievable," he said.
He's put the move on hold in case the strong interest in his story can result in a change that would allow him and his children to stay and farm.
He said his story, and that of many others with E-2 investor visas, needs to be heard in Washington, D.C.
Mulder said people here on E-2 visas "contribute big time to the economy" and yet are left out when it comes to citizenship. "Why does it have to be so hard, when it should be so much easier?" he said.
The flurry of news stories and public attention to their situation is like a "snowball" that's rolling to the East Coast, he said.
"Never say never," Mulder said. "It's always been an uphill battle and maybe now it's changing for the best."
As a little kid, Kelsey Mulder said the prospect of being forced to leave his home in Minnesota was an ever-present possibility that hung over the family's head. It "cut deep," he said.
Kelsey said he's been optimistic before about becoming a U.S. citizen, but "each time you get let down, it gets worse."
But this time feels different. "This is the biggest it's ever gotten," he said.