A bill stalled in Congress could help foreign farmworkers work on Vermont dairy farms and allow them to work toward citizenship, panelists at a Vermont Law School event said Tuesday.
Five speakers, including a foreign Vermont farmworker and the president of the Vermont Farm Bureau called for reform to a current temporary farm work visa program they say exploits farmworkers who work legally in the United States.
Very few Vermont farms use the H-2A program, the panelists said, because it only allows seasonal workers. However, a broad immigration reform bill stalled in U.S. House of Representatives would allow Vermont farmers to hire year-round foreign workers and provide a way for them to work toward permanent residency.
Vermont dairy farmers have pushed for a change to the H-2A program because they need workers year-round, panelists said.
The H-2A program is rife with abuse, said panelist Jennifer Lee, an attorney who has represented farmworkers. The program ties workers to a single farmer and often resembles slavery, she said.
Workers on H-2A visas live in fear of wage abuse, confiscation of documents, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and lack of medical treatment, said Lee, a professor at Temple University.
Lorenzo Rodriguez, a Vermont farmworker, said workers are invisible to the community and even sometimes to the farm where they work.
There are about 1,500 foreign farmworkers in Vermont, many undocumented.
Workers don’t have set schedules and never know their hours, Rodriguez said. They can’t easily get to the store or the hospital, he said.
“It’s legalizing slavery,” Rodriguez said.
The panel was hosted by the Food and Agriculture Law Society and took place at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton on Tuesday.
The other panelists were Abel Luna, campaign coordinator for the advocacy group Migrant Justice, Clark Hinsdale, dairy farmer and Vermont Farm Bureau president, and Megan Horn, a Washington, D.C., attorney for the national lobbying group Farmworker Justice.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Horn said, including about 1 million farmworkers. There are about 2 million farmworkers total, she said.
Some Vermont apple farmers use H-2A workers, Hinsdale said.
The H-2A program is a dead end, Lee said. It does not include a way to work toward citizenship and creates an underclass of workers who are never integrated into the community, she said.
The federal government also fails to oversee the program, prevent abuse or penalize farmers who exploit workers, Lee said.
“The regulatory system is sort of a bunch of theoretical protections that really in practices don’t address these workplace abuses,” Lee said.
Workers on H-2A visas, the majority of whom are from Mexico, are also not covered by a law that protects rights of migrant and seasonal workers. The bill in Congress would change that.
Lee represented sheep-herding workers in Colorado who made $750 a month, had no running water, no electricity and were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said.
There has been a failure to address “some of the systemic issues to raising overall workplace standards for workers.” Standards should be such that American workers want to work on farms, she said.
Luna said foreign workers don’t want to work 15-hour days for $6, either, or endure abuses and racism, but they face worse economic conditions back home.
“It’s not because they want to be here doing the work. They’re here because of a lot of hardships that they’re seeing in their countries,” Luna said.
When the United States started subsidizing the price of corn in the United States, Mexican farmers could no longer sell their crops and their livelihood was devastated, Luna said.
Vermont law enforcement officers also discriminate against foreign workers, Luna said. The state in 2012 passed a bias-free policing law but many departments have yet to act on it.
“Up to this date, we haven’t seen any progress with any departments actually complying with that,” Luna said.
The House Judiciary Committee has said it plans to attempt some measure to force compliance this session.
Luna and Rodriguez thanked the state for allowing farmworkers access to driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status, a measure that took effect Jan. 1, 2014.
The Vermont Farm Bureau supports the ability of workers to move between farms, Hinsdale said. The U.S. should properly and fairly bring the workers needed for agriculture, he said.
During his comments, Hinsdale turned to Rodriguez and asked whether he’d prefer to be in his home country. In his experience, he said, workers only want to stay for one to three years.
“You don’t like our winters, you want to go home, right?” Hinsdale asked.
Rodriguez, with Luna interpreting, said some workers want to stay long-term to support sick family members at home, but many want to work only a few years.
The federal immigration bill that would replace the H-2A passed the U.S. Senate but it is unlikely that Speaker John Boehner will call it to the House floor for a vote, Horn said.
The federal bill, S.744, is titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act and and passed the U.S. Senate 68-32. Among other measures, it would provide a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The bill would replace the H-2A visa program with an earned legalization program to allow certain agricultural workers and their families to obtain “blue cards,” a legal immigration status that can lead to citizenship.
The bill is a compromise between farmers and farmworker groups, Horn said, but is a step in the right direction.
One of the two visas the bill creates would be portable, allowing farm workers to move between farms, Horn said. The other would require a contract with an employer.
To get a green card, a blue card worker would have to work 100 days per year for five years during an eight-year period or work 150 days per year for each of three years during a five-year period, according to Horn.
The bill also sets wage requirements, including $11.37 an hour for livestock and dairy work and $9.64 an hour for crop workers.