Will Lambek & Enrique Balcazar: A path forward for migrant justice

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Lambek and Enrique Balcazar, organizers at Migrant Justice.

Along with many Vermonters, immigrant farmworkers in the Green Mountain State watched with increasing despair on election night, as precincts reported their votes and the sea of red swept westward across the country. Into the early hours of the morning, in trailers scattered throughout Vermont’s iconic working landscapes, immigrant farmworkers came to grips with the election’s results, a sensation no doubt familiar to many of their blue state neighbors. Yet for the state’s estimated 1,500 immigrant dairy workers, this sense of dread was far weightier.

Vermont’s iconic dairy industry relies heavily on immigrant workers, mostly young men and women from Mexico who have made the dangerous journey north with the hopes of finding a livelihood to support themselves and their families. Our state’s dairy workers exist within the paradox of the U.S. immigration system: without their labor the industry would likely collapse, yet no legal pathways exist for them to enter and remain in the country. As a result, the great majority of Vermont’s dairy workers are undocumented, and thus now find themselves in President-elect Trump’s crosshairs.

This election offers some important lessons for those who care about immigrant rights and the fates of their farmworker neighbors.

First, the interests of family farmers and workers, both immigrant and U.S.-born, are linked more closely than many realize. The outstanding irony of the 2016 election is that Trump won by mobilizing one set of neoliberalism’s victims against another. Trump won over working class whites who have seen their economies decimated by free trade agreements, flipping Rust Belt states that had long proven Democratic strongholds. Yet the neoliberal policies that have resulted in outsourcing and corporate consolidation of the food system are also responsible for the displacement that leads to mass migration.

The immense human tragedy of mass deportation is not something we witness from afar; it is happening in our back yard.


Take NAFTA. The North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump so effectively railed against not only contributed to factory closures and deindustrialization, it also kicked off the current wave of migration from Mexico that formed Trump’s second punching bag. NAFTA flooded the Mexican market with cheap corn. Mexican farmers growing the country’s staple crop had to compete with heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness, with the expected results; millions in Mexico have lost their livelihoods and been thrown off their land. These economic refugees have nowhere to go but north.

Second, in recent decades, mass deportation has been a thoroughly bipartisan project. The precursor to Trump’s dream of a “big, beautiful wall” was Operation Gatekeeper. The ghoulishly named Clinton-era program began the current trend of fencing off the southern border, pushing migrants into the Sonoran desert, where thousands have perished trying to make the journey north. Not coincidentally, the Democratic president created this initiative directly following the passage of NAFTA, with the knowledge that immigration would rise as Mexican farmers lost their land.

More recently, the Obama administration has presided over the deportation of more than 2.5 million immigrants — the most of any president in U.S. history — earning him the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief.” This sharp spike in mass deportations has been accomplished by building a machinery for mass deportation that relies on the collaboration of police departments around the country. Often against their will, police officers have been conscripted as proxy deportation agents through Obama initiatives such as “Secure Communities” and the “Priority Enforcement Program.” Trump now inherits this machinery and, if his campaign promises are any indication, will be running it full throttle.

Third, we must move beyond the false notion of Vermont exceptionalism. One of the greatest threats to immigrants in Vermont in the Trump era will be the blinders put on by neighbors who claim that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” The immense human tragedy of mass deportation is not something we witness from afar; it is happening in our back yard. Just this summer, more than a dozen Addison County farmworkers were arrested by immigration agents and now find themselves in deportation proceedings. Immigrant farmworkers in Vermont are being surveilled, targeted, arrested and deported today, and this will only increase under Trump.

What distinguishes Vermont is not our isolation or inherent benevolence; it is the legacy of hard-fought victories won by immigrant workers organizing for human rights. In 2013, immigrant Vermonters won the right to access driver’s licenses, allowing them to secure the human right to freedom of movement in our rural state. The following year, farmworkers worked for passage of the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy. The recently updated policy, which must be adopted by all police and sheriff’s departments across Vermont, firmly establishes that police “shall not dedicate time or resources to the enforcement of federal immigration law.” These policies must be defended and advanced in the Trump era.

Lastly, one of the few pieces of good news coming out of the election was the defeat in Arizona of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Self-styled as “America’s toughest sheriff,” for more than two decades this proto-Trump ruled over Phoenix with an iron fist, conducting immigration sweeps through Latino neighborhoods, constructing tent prisons in the desert, and implementing with relish the state’s “show me your papers” law. The Latino community organized against Arpaio and handed him a stunning defeat on election night. With Arpaio’s reign of terror coming to an end, his defeat shows us that when communities organize and persevere, they can topple tyrants.

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  • Frank Beardsley

    Perchance the Migrant Justice Center could help the illegals go home and assist them in their attempt to re-enter the country legally. That would be the humane course of action, although it’s more difficult, expensive and time-consuming than penning a ‘poor us’ letter.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      Take a look at the human rights records in the countries you are are talking about before you profess that it is humane to deport. Legal immigration only moves expeditiously for the elite and economically advantaged. For some, deportation is a death sentence.

  • Dave Bellini

    Either the law needs to change to reflect the practice or, , , the practice needs to change to reflect the law. Congress, now all in republican control has an opportunity and obligation to straighten things out once and for all. They can create some “path to citizenship” and take all the credit and proclaim themselves great humanitarians. It’s easier for conservatives to pass immigration reform that is compassionate. It was Nixon that expanded welfare. Same idea.

    • John Freitag

      One way this might be possible is to expand for dairy farm migrant workers programs that already exist for migrant workers on Vermont fruit and vegetable farms. These protect both workers and employers and provide for American workers a first chance at the jobs. Visa could be provided on a six month on six month off shift.

  • Tom Koch

    Organizing and extracting benefits from a compliant legislature are poor substitutes for the “justice” that these writers purport to seek. What is far more important is working to enact a fair and rational immigration policy that serves this nation’s legitimate needs. They write nothing of that, perhaps because a new and comprehensive immigration law would be easier to enforce than what we have on the books today.

  • Joe Perry

    Maybe the real answer is to let the unprofitable milk trade, that apparently can not make a profit without poorly paid workers (human slavery), expire.

    Question, how can these workers be undocumented immigrants if they have driver’s licenses?

  • David Parot

    I just do not get this. Contractors and small businesses around the State and across the USA have a hard time finding quality employees. People are being audited for hiring subcontractors regarding workman’s compensation by the State, yet no action whatsoever is being taken against farms hiring ILLEGALS. The illegal immigration into our country has to stop. If you know of this activity call I.C.E. they will investigate. The people coming into this country illegally could be terrorists and not farm workers. The Cartels run our southern border and the President elect has committed to stopping it. As far as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he is an American hero. Anyone that has visited or traveled around the Southwest can see what he was trying to combat. Having family and friends that work for CBP and ICE, the work they do to keep us safe is priceless! DEPORT all illegals as they are caught. Selectively enforcing our laws should be a crime.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      Arpaio was an out of touch, fear mongering bigot. I grew up in Arizona and watched as he consistently timed his battles with elections and funding cycles. Cynicism combined with ideology created one of the worst regressive demagogues this country has ever seen. The guy lives in a cycle of fear and insecurity not based in any reality. He was the champion of selective enforcement himself due to the combination of his personality and very antiquated immigration law. His support of border vigilante gangs was criminal and showed exactly how myopic his thinking on life became. He ultimately viewed individual immigrants as an enemy instead of recognizing the economic forces at work. Good riddance.

      Your point about border patrol workers being invaluable is definitely true. They have the huge responsibility of trying to keep detainees safe and humanely treated in their endless journey. Their main client is their detainee, not “us” (whatever you mean by that). Care to share?

  • Michael Badamo

    Good commentary Will and Enrique. Keep up your good work in these increasingly difficult times.

  • “Vermont’s iconic dairy industry relies heavily on immigrant workers, mostly young men and women from Mexico who have made the dangerous journey north with the hopes of finding a livelihood to support themselves and their families.”

    …why? Why is it that our iconic dairy industry can only hire young men and women who made a dangerous journey from Mexico? What is it about the work that makes it so impossible for American citizens to do — and when did that change?

  • Gary Murdock

    “without their labor the industry would likely collapse,”

    I don’t think so. What their labor does do is help to fuel the over production that is the root cause of their problem. What their labor does do is put the real family farms that don’t use illegal immigrants at a serious disadvantage. What their labor does do is allow their employers to skirt the labor laws that all other businesses have to abide by. What their labor does do is fuel the growth of the type of ag operations that are responsible for the condition of Lake Champlain. Lets put PC aside and acknowledge that treating these people and their employers as a protected class is destructive. I am as sensitive to the plight of these people as the next guy, but the status quo is not the answer.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      This one of your better comments Gary and is a good template for how to approach the issue. Excellent connections among the complexities that usually get lost. Corporate over production and polluting ag operations are major problems but we should not blame migrant laborers for seeking better lives and working conditions than in certain home countries. The status quo is not the answer – I advocate for a more progressive approach. If we can keep our minds on the deeper economic problems facing workers who (while probably fueling big ag as you said) also fill a hugely needed role in US labor as historically exemplified, we can attack the problems and find solutions. Ultimately, as you pointed out, the entire industry might not collapse, but there would be labor shortages. I’m interested to revisit your suggestions on this.

  • Jamie Carter

    ” yet no legal pathways exist for them to enter and remain in the country. ”

    I stopped reading after this. The authors lost all credibility with a blatant lie. Fill out the paperwork like everyone else.

  • Peter Everett

    If anyone objects to deporting (or incarcerating) criminal undocumented immigrants, there must be something wrong with them. First, they either entered illegally or stayed beyond their allotted time. Then, they broke the laws of the land. These two are reasons for the above mentioned penalties. If you or I were to break laws, we, as citizens, would be held accountable. Why shouldn’t they???
    We are taxed at pretty high rates, mainly for worthwhile issues. We, as taxpayers, should not be financially responsible for their defense in the court system. Neither should sanctuary cities/states use taxpayer funds to provide for them. There are organizations to aid these cases. Let them raise funds. Taxpayers should demand that their money be used as intended. If any is used to fund these cases, we the taxpayer, should be able to receive a refund of our taxes that are proportional to such defense.

  • Ivan Shadis

    Thank you for writing this piece and for bringing attention to these local populations that will most need to be defended from our police state.

    No state or municipal resources should go to the enforcement of federal immigration law.

    Is there legislation that migrant justice is pushing for in Vermont now?

  • Farm laborers of whatever color or nationality work hard and feed us every single day of the year. Blaming them for the size of the dairy industry or its monumental failures is so mean, so un-Christian, and so misplaced. Vermont’s large co-ops, the DFA, and Dean Foods drove the change to mega-size dairies in Vermont and the U.S., not illegal farmworkers from Mexico.
    Those same corporations don’t want immigration fixed or it would be fixed. They want cheap labor.
    I was a farm laborer for 15 years and a farmer for 45. We often think of farm labor or even farming as low class work. But, it is elegant labor; working with animals, plants, soil, water, and nature is enriching. The laborers I know from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and the Arab states are mostly wonderful people, hard working, and very generous, in spite of their low economic status.
    In this Christmas season, we should appreciate the people who feed us, and take the time to listen to their complaints, which are serious.