Neither migrant-worker advocates nor the Vermont State Police know much about José Obeth Santiz Cruz, and that, in its own way, is as telling as what little is known about this young man who died in Fairfield last Tuesday.
The facts so far provide merely a rough sketch of what happened: On Dec. 22, a young Mexican was killed in an accident in a barn located on David and Peg Howrigan’s dairy farm on Paradee Road in Fairfield, a small town near St. Albans.
Advocates say Cruz was an undocumented Mexican dairy worker, and that fact makes it difficult for authorities to determine who he was, where he came from and why he ended up in Vermont. Until the state Medical Examiner’s Office has completed an autopsy, his death, too, will remain a mystery.
The police haven’t yet identified the young man, and they say he could be anywhere from 16 to 20 years old. Sgt. Tara Thomas, public information officer for the Vermont State Police, wrote in a statement that he was killed after a part of his body was caught in a gutter cleaner inside the barn.
He was believed to have been alone, Thomas wrote, and was declared dead at the scene. His immigration status is not a part of the investigation, according to Thomas.
Though the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now involved in the case, it is not clear whether the agency will probe the circumstances of the fatal accident. That’s because VOSHA may not have jurisdiction to investigate, unless the agency determines that the Howrigans employed 11 or more nonfamily employees in the last four months, according to VOSHA manager Robert McLeod. If the agency does not have jurisdiction in the case, the accident will not be investigated by any other government entity, McLeod says.
“I would really hope that there would be some way that the agricultural community would be able to begin working on safety and health in agriculture,” McLeod says. “It’s a very dangerous activity and there are a lot of people who are working in this (field) … and though we’d never have any jurisdiction over family members. it doesn’t make any injury or fatality any less devastating.”
Farming is one of the five most dangerous occupations according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, and there have been at least two other farm fatalities in Vermont in the last several years according to news reports.
Amparo Anguiano, deputy consul for the Mexican Consulate in Boston, says injuries from farming accidents among Mexican immigrants have been reported in other states, but “this is the first time that I know of something like this happening in Vermont.” Nationwide, the injury fatality rate for Hispanic youth on farms between 1995 and 2000 was 53 fatalities per 100,000 youths, according to the last study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
As far as VOSHA is concerned, McLeod says Cruz’s immigration status is not relevant to the investigation. “The person’s immigration status has absolutely no bearing on anything,” McLeod says. “It doesn’t matter. OSHA and we have never, ever looked at a person’s immigration status. They are an employee.”
But while state agencies can ignore the immigration status of the deceased dairy worker, Brendan O’Neill, who is a teacher for the Vermont Migrant Education Program, says it is the young man’s lack of documentation as an approved worker in the United States that has compounded the difficulties surrounding his death.
O’Neill took it upon himself within hours of Cruz’s death to publicize the fatal accident, to hold a vigil at the Vermont Workers Center in Burlington on Wednesday because Cruz’s 80 extended family members and village friends who work on dairy farms in Vermont are unable to hold a funeral for the boy. They fear being rounded up for detention and deportation by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, commonly known by its acronym, ICE.
Speaking of migrant-worker conditions in northern Vermont, O’Neill says: “Just imagine someone who lives 20 miles away who never gets to see a family or community member because they’re essentially held captive on farms due to a broken immigration system. They can’t even go and just hug a mourning family member and mourn the loss in person.”
Nor can they afford to return the young man’s body to the village of Las Margaritas in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. O’Neill has started a memorial fund in order to raise as much as $10,000 to pay for the transportation of the body, and so far, he has collected several hundred dollars in donations from Mexican dairy workers.
Cruz had been here only a short time before he died, says Anguiano, the deputy consul for the Mexican Consulate in Boston.
“I’ve met many young men and women from Chiapas,” Anguiano says. “And people come looking for opportunities to earn better wages and to work and save money and send back money to their families, so I assume that’s why he came here, like others.”
Though no one knows for sure just how many Mexican migrants work in Vermont’s dairy industry, estimates range from about 1,500 to 2,000. Most earn $8 to $10 an hour, according to Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
“They work a lot of hours, so they’re seeing more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives,” Appel says. “They work 70 to 80 hours a week, which is what the industry requires, and that’s why it’s difficult to find locals to do it. It’s hard, nasty work, most people think.”
Typically Mexican workers elsewhere in the United States represent different regions of Mexico. Most of the undocumented Mexican workers in Vermont, however, come from southernmost Mexico, which is very rural.
Though some workers come from Veracruz and Tabasco, the majority, like Cruz, come from Chiapas, Anguiano says. They are often lumped together under the term Hispanic, even though she says the peoples from southern Mexico are not Spanish-speaking, but native Mexicans for whom Spanish is
a second language. In Chiapas, the most common language, for example, is Tojolabal.
This language barrier can make communication with English-speaking farmers problematic, Anguiano says.
“It makes the situation very difficult,” Anguiano says. “Add to that the fact that they’re very isolated, and it’s a double-edged sword.”
Migrant workers in Franklin County are particularly isolated because of the proximity of dairy farms to the Canadian border. The farm in Fairfield where Cruz worked is about 20 miles from Canada, and ICE is a major employer in the area, according to Appel.
“I got involved with this because of racial profiling reports,” Appel says. “People would call the cops when they’d see dark-skinned individuals in the Grand Union or in other stores or what-have-you and the cops would call the Border Patrol.”
Anyone can report a suspected undocumented worker to ICE, according to Barbara Whitchurch, of Crime Victim Services, a federally funded nonprofit that provides services for immigrants.
“When they receive a report,” Whitchurch says, “they have to respond. It kind of sets in motion this chain of events.”
Consequently, migrant dairy workers in northern Vermont have difficulty leaving the farm to grocery shop, go to the doctor, visit friends, or as in this case, to memorialize the death of a loved one.
O’Neill says Mexican workers have to rely on farmers to meet their basic needs for health care, transportation and food. “Too often they’re entirely dependent on their employer, who in this case is an overworked, overburdened, suffering dairy farmer,” O’Neill said.
To help the Mexican migrant worker community defray transportation and funeral costs, make a tax deductible check out to the Vermont Workers’ Center with the José Obeth Santiz Cruz Memorial Fund in the memo subject line. It should be mailed to the Vermont Workers’ Center, 294 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington VT 05401.