Business & Economy

Bill mired in U.S. House could help foreign dairy workers in Vermont

Lorenzo Rodriguez, who works on a farm in Vermont, speaks at immigration reform panel Tuesday at Vermont Law School. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger
Lorenzo Rodriguez, who works on a farm in Vermont, speaks at immigration reform panel Tuesday at Vermont Law School. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

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.

Clark Hinsdale, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau, speaks at immigration reform panel Tuesday at Vermont Law School. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger
Clark Hinsdale, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau, speaks at immigration reform panel Tuesday at Vermont Law School. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

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.

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  • Kathy Nelson

    The path toward legal immigration into the US starts at the US border with the proper applications and permits. A way to access citizenship after becoming a criminal by sneaking across the border is opening the door to lawlessness.

    “The bill also sets wage requirements, including $11.37 an hour for livestock and dairy work and $9.64 an hour for crop workers.”
    Does this part of the bill mean that a farmer should be required to pay above minimum wage to foreign workers because they are foreign workers?

    I see a big problem here with allowing foreign hire at farms and businesses in VT period. It seems to inspire a kind greedy sadism from employers and an unwillingness of foreign nationals to make social and economic improvements in their own countries.

    • Paul Richards

      “The bill also sets wage requirements, including $11.37 an hour for livestock and dairy work and $9.64 an hour for crop workers.”
      Looks like the unions have already got their hooks into this deal. Figures, prey on the downtrodden and bring them into the fold, turn them into good little foot soldiers for the liberals. Why do you think they are letting them in here in the first place?
      I agree; The path toward legal immigration into the US starts at the US border with the proper applications and permits. A way to access citizenship after becoming a criminal by sneaking across the border is opening the door to lawlessness. Put a moratorium on immigration.

      • Jared Hobson

        You seem to comment negatively on every piece of media. Maybe switch to Fox News?

  • Dan Carver

    These are Vermonter jobs and as long as there are unemployed Vermonters, Vermonters should be working at these positions.

    • Jacob Miller

      Why hire Vermonters and have to pay $8.60 per hour plus social security taxes when a farmer can employ undocumented workers for sub-minimum wages?

  • It seems our Vermont Law Makers are breaking the Law. They make Law after Law year after year and hold our feet to the fire and then go ahead and break our immigration Laws. Why do they feel we should be “all in” on this. We are not!

  • Jay Fortin

    This issue needs to go one way or the other. We pay thousands of able-bodied Vermonters to sit at home and collect disability simply because they’ve learned how to Google “conditions” like Fibromyalgia. But because $1,300 a month isn’t enough for doing nothing (duh), many sell their prescriptions (that you bought for them) and make great money doing it. Meanwhile all the hardworking Vermonters support this subculture with tolerance. I realize some of it is justified. What is not justified sending millions of dollars out of the state/country untaxed while dairy farmers line their pockets on the backs cheap labor. Come to Lamoille County and find a farm. Peek in the garage. You’ll not find much less than Cadillac Escalades and Chevy Tahoes, and that’s a fact. Apparently farmers need heated seats and custom rims while they’re overseeing the pollution of Lake Champlain. Maybe someone with a big brain and a spine can fix this. Good luck. **p.s. How hard can it be to create a path to citizenship, or simply document? I’m documented, as should everyone be who lives among us. It’s called being a taxpayer.

  • Kathy Leonard

    It’s seems clear from comments thus far that there is little understanding of dairy farm realities. First of all, you don’t just “plug in” someone who needs a job with one on a dairy farm – unless you want to suffer serious consequences. Any commenter here might be surprised to find out the skills a dairy job entails as well as the appropriate temperament needed to work with animals.

    Like so many other issues, unless you have first-hand knowledge of the realities, answers look easy. I find it sad that Vermonters have become so alienated from the people who feed them and have kept their state open and productive. Surely there are ways to make this situation work for farmers while protecting WHOEVER it is that works on their farms.

  • Kathy – what part of “illegal immigrant” do you not understand? It is not complicated-

    Also, as a born and raised Vermonter and having grown up on Mom and Pop farms, I find it a bit difficult to digest your comment of, “as well as the appropriate temperament needed to work with animals”.

    I sure miss the Mom and Pop Farms with the nicely groomed Brown Cows grazing. Out on the rolling green Vermont Landscape.

    I think farming has changed a lot.

    Also, and this is just me, I feel that with the War on TERROR!!!! and with people that are coming into our country in this manner, I’m just not comfortable with it.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The farm workers should be treated exactly like all other workers…with the same protections.

    Either all men are created equal – or they are not. No one should be treated differently because of where his mother was at the time of his birth.

    • Paul Lorenzini

      All people are created equal, or at least they were when the forefathers wrote that phrase. You do know how children are created right? Well that was before we had all this wonderful science to create babies in test tubes, and modify genes and all that great science.

    • Fritz von Hofe

      I would agree – farm workers should be treated exactly like all other workers. That would entail providing a valid SSN, withholding for Federal and State taxes as well as Medicare, issuance of a W-2, timely filed tax forms to the IRS and VT Dept of Taxes, and a whole host of other requirements the rest of us have to abide by.

      • Paul Lorenzini


  • David Dempsey

    I remember when farmers used to milk their own cows and work in the fields. Dairy farming is very different today and it is difficult to make it with smaller herds. But how can the Vermont government allow farmers to openly hire illegals and not allow construction companies, hospitality industries and others in Vermont do the same thing. The legislature is working on paid sick days and raising the minimum wage for workers. If farmers can’t make it by following Vermonts employment rules, they shouldn’t be in business. I have life long friends who grew up farming and know run the family farms, so I have no vendetta against farmers. But the legislature needs to address issues with all illegal immigrants, not just the ones who work on farms.

  • James Maroney

    Today’s farm workers’ rights are a vestige of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, which as an inducement to southern democrats to support the New Deal, sedulously denied all farm workers, who were in the main southern, the expanding rights of urban industrial workers. See Ira Katznelson, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,” (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2013).

    I do not begrudge efforts to win better working conditions for immigrant workers. But aligning the issue to the needs of conventional Vermont dairy farmers is counterproductive to reform of dairy farming, an industry mired in economic, social and environmental problems not the least of which is that it is the leading regulated contributor to pollution in Lake Champlain.

    Clark Hinsdale, who represents the Farm Bureau and the interests of conventional Vermont dairy farmers, does not seem to appreciate this fact. Nor does he appear to understand that in an effort to help his industry survive the onslaught of expanding production and falling farm prices brought on by the application on Midwestern farms of modern farming technology after WWII, the Vermont legislature has for a generation or more provided farmers with $60/80M/year in tax exemptions, deferrals and other subsidies. In a desperate effort to keep up with Midwestern farms, with which for a variety of reasons they cannot compete, Vermont farmers have converted these subsidies to new capacity with which to make more milk, the result of which is to drive their prices further down, which in turn drives more farm attrition and more lake pollution here in Vermont. Mr. Hinsdale now asks the citizens of Vermont to provide exceptions for Latin Americans coming to Vermont to work on dairy farms, not because conditions and wages are deplorable, but because dairy farmers want cheap labor, which Vermonters do not wish to supply.

    There is no space here to get into the reasons why Vermonters do not seek farm work, or why Latin Americans come to Vermont, whether it is because they just want to work on farms or that, irrespective of what we think of as poor working conditions, Vermont is a relatively easy gateway to citizenship. My concern is the reform of Vermont farming. That reform cannot gain momentum here first and foremost because federal dairy policies, going back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was a life saver for American farmers back then, are the main driver of over production and low milk prices today. This means that the most salient effects upon Vermont due to the availability of willing workers no matter from where, is to help conventional Vermont dairy farmers maintain the ever-present US milk surplus, which invariably means lower prices for them and more farm attrition. And, because conventional Vermont dairy farmers apply to their land the very chemicals that are found in the lake, and because Vermont must now meet its federally mandated water quality standards, it is important that Vermont reform conventional Vermont dairy’s highly destructive business model.

    Mr. Hinsdale asks Vermont society to adjust its immigration laws to permit Latin Americans to work on conventional dairy farms without regard to the fact that without the $60/80M in annual subsidies the legislature appropriates for its support, the industry would collapse; he seems oblivious to the cost to society of farm attrition and to the cost to society of re mediating the lake pollution his industry causes. He is oblivious to the fact that the present allocation of taxpayer support provides short-term profits to maybe two dozen large conventional dairy farmers but disadvantages the other 700, the ones that 97% of Vermonters told the Survey on the Future of Vermont that they support. He seems oblivious to the fact that society authorizes the legislature to feed with one hand the very same problem it believes the legislature is with the other taxing them to fix.

    Irrespective of whether immigrant farm workers have rights that are sorely in need of advocacy, and they do, helping them because they are willing to work on conventional Vermont dairy farms is counterproductive for Vermont.

  • Peter Liston

    “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34

    “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Matthew 25:35

  • laura phipps

    i just had my sisternlaw from Germany come stay with us. They put 5000 miles on my van and never offered us a penny. Sometimes you give people your hand and they grab you by the neck. The immigrates are the same way. They think all Americans are is just so rich.