Vermonters say immigration policy is failing migrant workers, dairy farms

Writer Julia Alvarez reads from her latest book, "Return to Sender," at the Vermont Sate Conference on Migrant Farmworkers. Alvarez, who lives in Vermont, is from the Dominican Republic. The seed for the novel came from her work as a translator for the children of Mexican migrant workers who attend local schools.

MIDDLEBURY – Battling emotion and shyness, a young Mexican woman briefly told her story Saturday to participants at the Vermont State Conference on Migrant Farmworkers. She’s working in this country in order to send money home, she said. But she misses her family, and her life here is lonely.

“I am not a criminal,” she said through a translator just before she burst into tears. Life here, she said, is a “golden cage.”

She was one of several Mexican farm workers at the conference, which was held at Middlebury College. It was also attended by farmers, lawyers, college students and social justice organizations.

About six years ago, two Addison County women, Cheryl Mitchell and Cheryl Connor, formed a group aimed at helping migrant farm workers and the farmers who hire them. Over the years they’ve worked on a variety of problems ranging from health care for migrant workers to sensible policing practices to figuring out how to offer church services in Spanish.

Saturday’s conference was sold out early, which didn’t surprise Connor. She said there has been considerable interest in how Vermont farmers deal with farm laborers, who are largely Mexican and very likely undocumented.

It’s no secret that dairy farmers are counting on Mexican labor to keep going. It’s not a matter of saving money, though: They are paid what a U.S. citizen would earn.

Many attendees said the nation’s immigration policy is failing year-round agricultural workers and their employers.

“Our goal is to give people the practical skills to keep farm workers and the farm economy,” said Tim Buskey of the Vermont Farm Bureau, moderator of the conference. He noted that a newspaper headline that day said that another 200 dairy farms might be lost in Vermont soon. The Vermont Farm Bureau has named immigration reform one of the top four issues that Congress should address, he said.

There are about 1,500 foreign workers helping Vermont farms with economic survival, Buskey said, and that is, indeed, what they’re doing. Finding labor is just one of the problems dairy farmers face, but it’s a big one.

The number of people seeking dairy farm jobs is pretty small, Connor said. It’s dirty, smelly, hazardous work with dreadful hours, and even in a bad economy there aren’t many people applying for those jobs, she said.

It’s no secret anymore that many Vermont dairy farmers are largely counting on Mexican labor to keep going. There’s a grave shortage of Americans who are willing to commit to the long hours and low compensation. It’s not a matter of saving money, though: In most cases, immigrants are paid what a U.S. citizen would earn – plus free housing.

Many Vermont dairy farmers have come to rely on foreign workers, but the absence of an intelligent federal policy has put everyone involved in a precarious situation. Farmers don’t know if their workers will be deported tomorrow, and if they’ll be left wondering how to milk their cows. Workers hardly dare leave their homes for fear of being turned in.

The conference attendees came to the consensus that U.S. policy toward year-round farm workers makes no sense, has no advantages, and can leave both worker and employer in a nerve-wracking limbo.

Samano was critical of both U.S. policies. “We need your work, but we don’t want you,” he said about the U.S. attitude toward Mexican workers.

No one at the conference suggested that undocumented farm laborers should be banned. The emphasis was on how to keep the arrangement functioning – on providing information and services to both workers and employers so they can continue to accommodate each other. There was a clear amount of frustration with and anger about the situation.

The keynote speaker was Fernando Estrada Samano, Consul General of Mexico in Boston. “Nearly the whole population of the U.S. is migrants,” he noted. “Today, 13 percent of your population is foreign-born.”

Samano, a genial man, was critical of both U.S. and Mexican policies. “We need your work, but we don’t want you,” he said about the U.S. attitude toward Mexican workers. “We need you, but we don’t accept your brown-ness. There is this stupid obsession with color of skin. There is at least this contradiction in the U.S., but in Mexico, we are also contradictory. We demand justice and respect and human rights for our people in this country. What isn’t said is that my countrymen have to come here in order to survive.”

Both countries have a challenge, he said. “Do we welcome each other, or do we fear each other? We do not ignore for a moment that our people are breaking the law. It’s a problem. But then again, there are 12 million people in this country who are in the shadows. We have to find a way out. We have to find a way for them to enter the light. It’s a shared responsibility. It’s our loss, your gain.”

According to Erin Shea at the Vermont Migrant Education Program, the demographics in Vermont have changed radically in the last five years. In 2005, few people were even aware that Mexican labor was here. Today more than 50 percent of the migrant labor population is Latino, she said, and they are largely young men without families.

As of October 2009, there were 1,043 dairy farms in Vermont, she said. One hundred sixteen of those had foreign workers. “Ninety-seven percent of our students are on dairy farms,” Shea said. She said that 11 percent of farm workers in Vermont are female, a higher than average number.

The conference offered several tracks: sessions on legal issues affecting farmers and farm workers, health care, art and culture, farming communities, the basics of organizing, and educational opportunities.

Legal Issues

There are few ways that an undocumented worker can become legal, said Art Edersheim, a lawyer with the South Royalton Legal Clinic, Vermont Law School’s teaching clinic. They all involve fairly extreme circumstances: the worker must be a victim of labor trafficking, an abandoned adolescent, a victim of a crime or domestic violence, or a political asylum seeker.

Most Vermont dairy farm workers are here voluntarily and don’t fall into those categories, Edersheim said. The only relief for them will have to come from legislation or regulatory change at the federal level.

Undocumented migrant workers are entitled to workers compensation unless they make less than $20,000, Edersheim said. They are not entitled to unemployment. Nor can they collect Social Security, although they must pay it. “The Social Security Administration uses that money to pay everybody else, and hopefully that’s what’s helping to keep it afloat,” he said.

A big problem is that only documented workers can get a driver’s license, he said. “It’s a real, real problem.”

Workers need transportation to buy groceries, go to church, or a doctor’s appointment, which puts a strain on the employer and contributes to the isolation of workers, Connor said.

Edersheim also talked about how to keep everyone out of jail. The less an employer knows, the better, he said. There are laws against harboring, concealing or transporting an alien, and they carry stiff penalties – up to 10 years in jail.

“Anything you say to law enforcement can be used against you. They are allowed to lie to you, but it’s a crime if you lie to them.”

Employers should not ask workers about their legal status, he said. They should not discuss how the worker entered the United States. “Don’t ask questions you don’t have to have the answers to,” Edersheim said.

He added that: “If you see an immigration guy go across the field and you call your people and say make a run for it, it will not bode well.”

Michele Jenness from Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates has spent 16 years working on detention issues. She outlined the rights of both workers and farmers.

If you’re stopped and told to identify yourself, you have to give your name, she said. You do not have to answer other questions. “Anything you say to law enforcement can be used against you. They are allowed to lie to you, but it’s a crime if you lie to them.”

If it’s a motor vehicle stop, people are required to show a driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. People do not have to answer any further questions. Foreign drivers’ licenses are honored as long as they are valid.

You do not have to let people into your home unless they have a search warrant, Jenness said. “If law enforcement pounds on your door, ask to see a warrant through the window.” If the officer does have a warrant, have him slide it under the door, and at that point you must let him in. Look at the warrant closely to see what exactly it allows to be searched. Take notes. What was searched? What was taken? “If they have a warrant, you have to let them in.”

A non-U.S. citizen who has valid documents is required to carry them at all times. Failure to carry them could result in a misdemeanor conviction.

It’s important to ask to speak to a lawyer before signing anything, Jenness said. Workers have a right to call their consulate.

“As a person in this country, you have a right to drive or walk lawfully,” said Robert Appel from the Human Rights Commission. “In Vermont, an officer may not lawfully stop you unless they have ‘articulable suspicion.'” That means a person has either been reported or is in the act of doing something suspicious.

The Border Patrol is another story, Appel said. They have jurisdiction within 100 miles of any border and can treat people the same way they’re treated at customs, which doesn’t involve much privacy.

But no one can enter agricultural property without a warrant or consent, Jenness said.

The situation in Addison County is far more relaxed than in the North, Edelsheim said. “People are so much more on edge up there. Here you hear a horror story or two, but there people are on edge every day.” That’s in large part because of the proximity to the border and overzealous law enforcement officers who are used to working on the Mexican border, he said.


“Why are we holding up agricultural jobs for nationwide reform?” said attorney Philip Boyle, an attorney who works in Shelburne and in San Francisco.

At the moment, seasonal agricultural workers can legitimately come into the country using an H-2A visa. “We’ve had a statute for seasonal and temporary workers for quite a while,” Boyle said. “Who’s to define temporary?”

H-2A allows sheep and goat herders to be here for three years. “Why not dairy?” Boyle said. “What’s the difference?”

He suggested a change in the rules to accommodate the need for agricultural workers here could be a pilot program.

The legislation he sees the most hope for is “AgJOBS,” a bill first proposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy 15 years ago. It’s recently been reintroduced by U.S. Rep. Dianne Feinstein of California.

The measure would allow the issuance of a blue card. An undocumented worker could work toward citizenship by proving that he or she had been working in agriculture, or was willing to.

“It’s a pretty good program for those who qualify,” Boyle said.

Senator Patrick Leahy intends to introduce legislation that would also help farm workers and their employers, but the bill does not make it clear what would happen to undocumented workers who are already here, Boyle said.

“Would people have to leave to apply? We could be talking about a whole new workforce,” Boyle said.

AgJOBS may not be perfect, Boyle said, “But are we going to sit around for another five years? Let’s do something, get them documents. If it’s not perfect but the worker has documents, he can go on strike if he wants.”

He urged people to ask Vermont’s congressional delegation to support the measure.

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  • The US lost 8 million jobs in the last 3 years. That is a lot of tax revenues lost as well. Why bring in Mexicans to take US jobs so they can send most of their incomes to Mexico to be spent in Mexico instead of in the US.
    Low cost labor helps farmers, but does not help the US as a whole

  • Steve Lobb

    As a U.S. born “white” Yank, I have traveled the world, working as carpenter, charter skipper, boat builder, and more. My wife and kids were not born in continental U.S. and could be considered “people of color”. In all twenty five countries I’ve worked in, as a foreigner, I’ve never been legal, because the laws were vague for my circumstances. But in every place I worked, the authorities who were usually aware of my working, always overlooked the fact because I was doing no harm and contributing something positive to their society. It’s what I might call good judgement on their part. A good example of using judgement would be in Holland, a land of law and order, where the are so many laws, many outdated, that the average Dutchman, not to mention foreigners, have a very difficult time being legal in every way! In contrast, what on earth is wrong with U.S. when it comes to migrant worker issues??? It would make no sense that it could be a racist problem, being that we are a land of immigrants more than any other country. (excluding the demise of the Native American or the ugly history of annexing Mexican territories)The idea that migrants are taking away jobs is completely hypocritical and contradictory to the U.S. concept of competition and Capitalism as a pure work ethic. And of course, the fact that we have allowed this cat and mouse game to go on for a long time means there are lots of children involved and therefore has become very much a humanitarian issue. And just because the Arizona problem has exaggerated this complex issue, our so called “democracy” hopefully has no good reason to become Fascist. Be careful,you never know who will be next on the black list in a police state! Stefan de Lobos

  • ed fisher

    The only reason farmers wish to help hispanic illegals is for labor costs. Period. Like any good corporation , they will get rid of higher paid employees to hire them. I say lets teach them to be bankers, teachers and state employees , hey maybe even professors and journalists. Then watch how fast this issue is dealt with.

  • M.V Savage

    I must disagree with the speaker. You are a criminal.
    The plight of the New England dairy farmer is the fault of another misguided federal policy which is aimed at protecting the monopolies that benefit over the small producers.
    Although the whole immigration issue involves pain, often for the innocent, it is in the best interest of the United States to protect its borders.
    To the writer who traveled the world and worked illegally. You were a law breaker too and your opinions are stained by that fact.

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