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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