Business & Economy

Undocumented on the farm: Inside the life of a Vermont migrant dairy worker

Migrant dairy worker
Migrant dairy worker feeds cows. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this story was published in The Guardian: “My undocumented friend: Carlos does the work few in Vermont want to do.”

Silhouetted by summer sun, Carlos stood at the front door of my house. “Hey, come on in,” I told him.

“No,” he said pointing to his work boots, heavy with mud and manure. “But can you help me?” Carlos was one of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 undocumented, mostly Mexican migrants employed on Vermont dairy farms. The actual number, like most of the workers who entered the country illegally, is hidden.

Carlos (not his real name) had come to Vermont after a year working construction in Texas where he could blend into the large Latino diaspora and its familiar culture. Vermont is an alien world, with dark winters and light people. When dairy workers venture off their isolated farms, they stand out.

In a blend of Yankee pragmatism and ordinary decency, many Vermonters, including police and officials, quietly welcome — and often protect migrant workers.

I met Carlos several years back when, as part of an informal volunteer network, I’d occasionally ferry migrants to medical appointments or to supermarkets, where they buy the kind of calorie-rich processed food that horrifies kale-munching locals. I helped filled out forms enabling them to wire money to family in Mexico, lending my name and return address, and wondering what the IRS would make of my sending thousands of dollars to small towns in Tabasco and Chiapas.

After Vermont approved a special driver’s license not requiring legal status, I taught a few guys to drive so they could shop for themselves, get a maple creemee at a roadside stand, and visit relatives and friends on other farms.
Several migrants had given me snippets of their tales — always without embellishment, self-pity, or drama. But it was years before Carlos — bright and charming, but guarded — opened up. Perhaps fording the flooded Rio Grande and hiking five days through the Texas desert — helicopters thumping the sky; hunger, thirst, and border patrols stalking the ground below — seemed so common as to be unremarkable, or too painful to recall.

Though Carlos has learned useful and colorfully idiomatic English, he speaks hesitantly, especially with strangers, and misunderstandings are possible. The favor he came to ask that sun-painted day was that I go with him for a “check-up.” “Well,” he hesitated, “to get tested for STI” (sexually transmitted infections). “Are you sick? Do you need to go immediately?” I asked. “No, I’m fine. I just want to get tested. Soon.”

The community clinic I phoned required two appointments, one for paperwork and another for testing. Two days interrupted, during haying season.

To save time, Carlos suggested going to a “doc in a box” in a strip mall. At the generic office, which looked like it could be selling insurance, which Carlos could never buy, I asked the cost. “$100 for the visit.” As he started taking bills from his wallet, I motioned him to stop. “And for the lab tests?” The young woman rummaged behind the counter. “$500, so $600 total,” she said.

“You’re kidding,” I nearly shouted. “For standard lab tests?”

“No way,” I told Carlos, who was probably deeply embarrassed by me. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it, but I knew how he sweated for that much money.

I phoned the health clinic to compare costs, and the scheduler asked why didn’t I go to Planned Parenthood. It had never occurred to me that the organization served men.

Except for a locked front door, security at the controversial nonprofit was unobtrusive. Joining three pregnant women in the waiting room, Carlos and I made quite the intriguing couple: an aging white woman and a handsome young Latino.

When we came to the part of the form on income, Carlos asked me what to do. I said he could report whatever amount he wanted. No, he corrected, do they want hourly, weekly, or what? He knew what I had meant, but had no inclination to cheat. He wrote $30,000 a year.

The receptionist quickly scanned his paperwork. “We have a sliding scale,” and with obvious pleasure, told Carlos, “You just qualify for free services.”

Vermont, she said is the only state fully covered by the Access Plan which includes birth control, annual exams, STI testing and treatment, patient education and counseling for both men and women who are uninsured and earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

It is a practical policy, given the long-term economic and public health benefits of diagnosing, treating, and preventing the spread of communicable diseases that can lead to AIDS, cancer, sterility, and more.

How else are males served? By way of reply, the receptionist reached under the counter. “We distribute these,” she said, handing me a football-sized clear plastic bag filled with condoms, individually wrapped in colorful foil decorated with hearts and flags, kissy lips, and stars.

When Carlos returned from the exam room, he was assured, although a few tests were pending, that he was clean. I tossed him the bag, and we all laughed. As we left, I spied him slipping a donation, three $20 bills, onto the counter.

In the car home, curiosity overcame discretion. I probed. He hesitated. And then his face lit with pleasure. “I have a girlfriend, and she said, ‘No sex until we are both tested.’”

“Now, that is a great girlfriend,” I said. Smiling, we rode back under a cloudless sky to his farm, where the ripe fields glittered green and the cows, udders swollen, jostled in line for afternoon milking.

Migrant dairy worker, calf
A migrant dairy worker tends a Holstein calf. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

Latino migrants fill a gap

The presence of foreign-born migrant workers like Carlos is just the latest transformation of Vermont agriculture. A century ago, the state was 70 percent cleared agricultural land, 30 percent forest. Today, the ratio is approximately reversed. Older Vermonters still remember when, in the 1940s, some 11,000 small, family farms the dotted the land. Kids hand-milked fawn-brown, doe-eyed Jerseys before breakfast and then hitched rides to one-room schoolhouses on the beat-up trucks or horse-drawn wagons that hauled metal jugs of milk — topped with unctuous, yellow cream — to central collecting stations.

The number of farms continues to decline — from 1,030 to 825 just in the last decade. Strained by the high costs farming, taxes, and land prices, many have been drawn over, like an artist’s repurposed canvas, by malls, ski resorts, and summer homes. The last time Vermont had more cows than people Eisenhower was president; today there are 625,000 people and only 129,000 cows.

Nonetheless, milk production is up. On many farms, Jerseys have been replaced by black and white Holsteins, a large, ungainly breed that can churn out massive quantities of milk — 20,000-plus pounds a year — before their productivity wanes and they are ground into hamburger, pet food, or buried in the fields they once fertilized and grazed.

Along with the switch to Holsteins, federal and state tax abatements and subsidy programs, the increased cache and cash for the Vermont-branded and organic products, larger scale production, mechanization, and a new generation of back-to-the-land growers have allowed some farmers to survive, and a few to thrive.

What keeps the owners awake at night — besides the vagaries of weather and fluctuating milk prices that sometimes fall below costs — is finding and keeping cheap labor. Most have tried locals, and some have turned to former prisoners. But few stick it out.

It is little wonder that Americans with other options do not last. With two milkings a day, 12 hours apart, farms must be staffed 14 to 16 hours a day. Cows don’t get Christmas off, and neither do dairy workers.

Latino migrants are filling a gap and saving America’s farms. Nationwide, immigrants, many undocumented, comprise 51 per cent of the nation’s dairy industry, according to a 2015 study by Texas A&M University for the National Milk Producers Federation. If these workers were deported, the report concludes, milk prices would rise 90 per cent, and cost the U.S. economy more than $32 billion.

Without “our guests,” as then Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin called migrant farm workers, much of the state’s milk industry would likely dry up. Say goodbye to affordable Cabot cheddar; kiss Vermont-sourced Cherry Garcia sweet adios.

And farewell to much of the $2.2 billion in annual economic activity dairy brings Vermont — the only state in which more than half of farm income comes from a single commodity.

But beyond its economic contribution, dairy farming defines Vermont’s landscape, culture and allure. It shapes the landscape and life here, it lures tourists and helps retain residents through seven leafless months. Farms keep the pastures open — golden and green in summer, glistening white like polished steel in winter. River valleys and soft hillsides speckled with black and white cows embody Vermont’s old-fashioned beauty: its working landscape.

Vermont dairy farm
Vermont dairy farm fields. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

The lure of Vermont

Carlos just wanted a job. “It’s hard, hard work,” he says. “But you came to America to make money and go back quick. So you come to Vermont.”

At his previous job, construction for a large company in a mid-sized Texas city, the hourly wages were comparable to dairy, but the potential earnings and the cost of living were not. The Vermont jobs include housing with heat and other utilities, isolation that brings fewer spending temptations, and an opportunity to work up to 90 hours a week.

Although he expected the long, difficult hours, Carlos never anticipated winter’s malice. “I still remember asking my brother, who came a few months before I did, ‘How is Vermont?’ and he said, ‘Don’t come here. It’s horrible.’ He came in winter,” Carlos adds, grinning, “But I came anyway, in a van with my cousin and some others. I saw snow for the first time. I was, ‘What is this?’ he chuckles. ‘What am I doing here?’”

At this first farm, “they taught me to milk cows,” and now he lets out a loud laugh at the absurdity, “in one afternoon.”

“The next day Auntie Linda arrived. She speaks Spanish, and all the patrons know her. They all call her and say ‘We need one guy, two guys.’ She was a grumpy old woman, a big curser. We laughed at her swearing, but we didn’t care. I’d like to talk to her today and thank her. She gave me a pair of boots. They went through the whole winter.”

Brokers like Auntie Linda, the “coyotes” who smuggle migrants across the border, the people who run safe houses, the van drivers who make regular interstate and cross-country runs, and the farmers are part of a complex, underground system powered by cell phones and money.

Sex traffickers are a small part of that network. Most of the dairy workers are young men stuck on rural farms with no transportation. Enter the pimps who, exploiting the loneliness and isolation of the workers, drive women to remote farms. A prostitution ring in Vermont came to light in 2011, when police arrested two men who brought women to have sex with workers for $60 a trick.

“They just bring girls, Mexicans and Colombians, mostly Latinas, but sometimes [women] from here, too,” Carlos explains reluctantly. “They just show up. It could be months between visits, or could be the next weekend. You never know. They never came to our farm, and I know one thing, I’m not paying for that,” adding with embarrassment and exasperation, “Jesus, why are you asking me about this?”

A few times a year, officials from the Mexican consulate in Boston travel to areas with unauthorized Mexican citizens and, after careful screening, provide legal identification papers. The document allows migrants to buy a plane ticket to return to home, to prevent their being mistaken for criminals if picked up by authorities; and, in Vermont and 11 other states plus DC, to obtain a restricted “driving privilege” license. A group of Vermont volunteers helps facilitate the consulate event, organizing car pools and providing medical and legal resources and a communal meal.

While the Mexican IDs are useful, they do nothing to change U.S. legal status. And impediments to obtaining lawful visas are nearly insurmountable. Most non-professional immigrants who qualify for a green card (permanent residency) gain it through a family relationship to a U.S. citizen. Temporary H-2A agricultural visas last for months and are only for strictly seasonal jobs like planting and picking crops.

So with no legal options, and the workers’ importance to the economy, most of Vermont turns a blind eye, even a welcoming hand. That extends to “sanctuary” towns and a Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which enjoins police from profiling and targeting “illegals” or checking status when not specifically relevant. It’s “human rights 101,” Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos told the local Times Argus newspaper.

In 2015, a Grand Isle sheriff arrested Miguel Alcudia, a Mexican national, whose only crime was illegal entry, and turned him over to Customs and Border Patrol. Activists, including other unauthorized farm workers applied political pressure. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Peter Shumlin supported Alcudia’s case.

A few months later, Alcudia was freed, and the sheriff’s department was fined nearly $30,000 for discrimination.

No similar outcome is likely for Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo. Recently Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents targeted and detained the three prominent activists with Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based group advocating for dairy workers’ rights. The detentions were denounced in public demonstrations and a sharp letter from the state’s congressional delegation and Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios
Enrique Balcazar, 24, from Mexico, and Zully Palacios, 23, from Peru, are both well-known advocates for human rights in the state of Vermont. Courtesy photo

Support for the migrants is not universal among Vermonters. Some workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles contacted authorities to drop the dime on people with “South of the Border” names who applied for the special driver’s licenses, according to emails obtained through a public records request by Migrant Justice, a local farmworker advocacy group. One email gloated: “I’ve emailed the docs to Border Patrol and they will research further and get back to me. They sound pretty excited. I let them know [applicant] has re-scheduled for this Friday. I will also contact [DMV employee] and let him know what is going on, should he have to play stupid.” Another email warned, “We are being over run by immigrants.”

Targeted detentions and the Trump administration’s threat to deport migrants have sent waves of worry through farmers and workers alike.

“Are you afraid of immigration authorities?” I asked Carlos on the trip back from Planned Parenthood. “I used to think about it every day,” he said, “but now it doesn’t matter if they send me back, because that’s where I belong. I always tell my parents, I’m coming back this December, and they get a piglet to raise for a big party. And then I stay yet another year.”

It is not only money, and perhaps a girlfriend, that link Carlos to Vermont, but also the farm itself. Self-reliant and smart, Carlos has made himself valuable by learning to handle the farm’s large stock of trucks, manure spreaders, balers, tedders and other machinery. “I work sometimes 70, often 80 hours a week, sometimes 90. “Never, never 60 hours a week,” Carlos notes with pride.

Farm labor is specifically excluded from U.S. overtime pay regulations. Although his wages rose to $11.30 an hour plus a $150 monthly bonus when milk quality tests high, Carlos clears only about $9 hour. The difference is taxes.

When they arrive at a farm, the migrants provide Social Security numbers. “They are all fake,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “Somebody just gives you one.”

To stay legal, farmers withhold and file taxes — the benefits of which the worker can never collect in social security or unemployment benefits.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called CNN’s Erin Burnett “naïve” for suggesting “illegal immigrants” pay taxes. But nationally, they contribute an estimated $11.64 billion a year in just state and local taxes, with at least 50 percent of undocumented immigrant households filing tax returns, according to the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Vermont’s undocumented pay almost $4 million a year in state and local taxes.

Migrant dairy workers
Migrant dairy workers at a rally for fair pay. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

One of the few advantages of lacking an agricultural visa, which is tied to a specific employer, is that unauthorized farm workers can switch farms, relying on a grapevine to avoid abusive bosses. Carlos says that his patron, a tough taskmaster and a hard worker himself, “was always fair.” Their relationship, however, started badly. “When I got here, I didn’t know English and it was rough for me, and for him, I think. He would try to tell us what to do [in English] and he would get mad if something was not done how he wanted. It was always our fault. I couldn’t explain myself. I think that’s what got me to learn English.”

Over time, the two men grew fond of each other. “Now I know a little English and I can tell him what’s wrong. And he always jokes that, ‘I don’t know if I liked you better when you didn’t know any English.’ So like, yup, this is what it is. And he always pays us on time.”

That is not the case on all farms. Because of their status, undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation. “Some farmers never pay more than pay $7.50 an hour,” says Carlos. “I know a guy that the boss didn’t pay him, just fired him when he asked for money. But Migrant Justice went, and the farmer had to pay.”

Migrant Justice and others have also intervened to address living conditions. Some workers share a room in the boss’s house, some live in poorly insulated trailers or are crammed into bunkhouses.

The worst-off sleep in the barn. “I know a farm where they almost sleep with the cows,” says Carlos. “They have a little room off the milking parlor and just a door to divide them from the cows. I was at a farm like that the other day and I was like, “Where’s your house?’ ‘This is where we live,’ he said, and I was like ‘What?’ I didn’t ask how many people lived in the room.”

Carlos and the other workers at his farm have their own rustic, but comfortable, house with TV and wifi, cable, a stove and refrigerator.

Free accommodations facilitate the real goal: putting money aside for a better future for themselves and family back home. Despite one “really dumb” purchase of “that no-good Mustang,” Carlos has been able to save and send back enough to buy land, “build my house, buy 10 cows,” and help out his older siblings and parents.

Migrant workers like Carlos can, if they are careful, pare down out-of-pocket expenses to food they cook for themselves, phone service, and clothing. At their store of choice, Walmart, they buy up jeans made in Mexico that cost less than they would back home. Once, I took a worker who was returning the next day to Mexico to the “fancy store,” J.C. Penny, to buy presents to bring his wife. The saleswoman stalked us nervously as we examined filmy lingerie and nearly intervened when he held a red and black lace bra up to a mannequin to gage size.

Dairy farm
Dairy farm in winter. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

The long journey

A week or so after the Planned Parenthood visit, Carlos and I had lunch and I asked, promising anonymity, if he would talk to me — as a journalist — about his experiences. He started reluctantly. He was 16, he said, just out of high school with a bit of technical school when he took the two-day bus ride from Tabasco to Reynosa, a bitter, hardscrabble border city, deep in poverty, guns, gangs, and drug violence.

There, he and his older brother met the man who might lead them safely to a job in America, into the hands of border agents, or to death in the desert. Some coyotes are professional “guides” doing an illegal and dangerous job for which they expect high pay; some are con men bent on exploitation.

“If you come to the border alone, you will always find a coyote,” Carlos told me, “but you never know if it is someone who is reliable or will just take your money.”

One way to mitigate the risk of rip-offs and scams is by making arrangements ahead. Five years before, “my father made it to the states and knew which coyotes to trust,” said Carlos. In Reynosa, “someone would phone us and tell us the color of the car or truck, red or green, that would take care of us. But we never ever communicated with the coyote himself in any way until the moment we were on the border and we met in a bus station parking lot.”

“My coyote was one of the better ones,” Carlos said. “But all of them. It’s just about the money.”

And even the better ones cannot guarantee a successful crossing.

“It’s a risk we all take,” said Carlos, “and you never know how it will end.”

In 2011, the year Carlos crossed the river, Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 327,577 people in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Nearly 16,000, like Carlos, were “unaccompanied alien children,” under 17 years old. The agency documented 375 deaths.

The ones who made it safely joined America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, who, in 2014 accounted for about 5 percent of U.S. civilian labor force, the Pew Research Center estimates. Six million Mexicans, about half that total, are mostly concentrated in farming (26 percent) and construction occupations (15 percent).

Some migrants who make the crossing, especially those from Honduras and Guatemala, are escaping gang wars and may be eligible for refugee status. But almost all Mexicans are economic migrants seeking to better their lives.

“My papa, he grows watermelon and corn,” Carlos tells me, “and was the first to come to America. And when he was here, we always had something to eat. I came five years after [he returned]. “Now I am always helping them. I send money. My sister and brother [who are also in America illegally] can’t so much, because they have families to support, but I don’t.” Carlos is the youngest of five siblings. “My family [in Mexico] is doing fine and if they need something, they let us know, and we will get it for them. They never suffer for lack of food, gracias a dios.”

It was agreed, then: Carlos would pay his coyote $500 before they left Reynosa and arrange for someone to deliver $1,500 once he reached a safe house in Texas, far enough from the border that he could move on or blend in.
“They always need that money punctually, or it is dangerous. They can do anything to you.”

In Reynosa, the coyote took Carlos and his brother to a series of houses. “When they are ready to cross the river, they gave me a life vest, and we start to walk. It had been raining a lot, so the river was very high. It was during the day, because in the night, there were others crossing.”

The coyote led them to an inflatable boat and asked who knew how to swim. “I told them I didn’t, and that’s what you are supposed to say so they don’t throw you in the river.” The Rio Grande was swollen far into the trees on the U.S. side, and the dozen travelers, including three or four women, plus the coyote, had to leave the boat, which couldn’t navigate through the trees, and walk through chest-high water.”

Carlos brought water “aspirin and lemons, in case we run out of water.” The coyote gave them food to carry. “The meals, like beans, were all cans. And a lot of bread, tortillas.”

Once on dry land, with the thwack of helicopters “always, always,” beating the sky above, they walked rapidly, seeking cover while trying to evade sensors in the ground, cameras, and law enforcement patrols. After several more hours, the group reached a road where “we met a little truck. And we drove through a normal neighborhood … to a house where there were about 30 women, men, and children, not only Mexicans, but also Columbians and Hondurans.”

“They gave us food and a place to sleep. And some clothes and shoes, because ours were wet. You just take whatever fits you.” The next day, they boarded a truck that dropped them in the desert.

The Border Patrol calls the area the Rio Grande or McAllen Region. Spanish explorers had a more descriptive name: El Desierto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead.

Carlos became quiet, reached for a glass of water and stared at the table. Then, as if a switch had flipped, he began talking rapidly.

“I walked for five days,” he said, and when he saw me wince, added with annoyance at my pity, “That’s nothing compared to people I know; 15 days, 16 days in the desert, a month. That’s why people die, or they go with the wrong coyote, and then someone gets tired, they just leave them there.

“I saw a woman who was exhausted, and she was in our group. The coyote said ‘It’s her or all of us.’ She was in her 30s. He didn’t really want to leave her where no one would find her, so we went to a place where he thought the Border Patrol might pass. He gave her a bottle of water and left her there. She said nothing, didn’t even cry.
“Hours after we left her, we started to hear footsteps like someone is behind us and thought it was immigration. It was her. I can’t explain it, how she did it. She was almost about to die when we left her. Somehow she came.

“After three days, we ran out of water. I remember that was horrible, and then food was getting scarce. I was doing fine, but my brother, he was the one who was very exhausted, and a friend of mine, too. But we continue and continue. And the coyote, he always says, ‘We just have to get to that light.’ He tries to give us hope. ‘Are you ready to make dollars?’”

“We were just exhausted. I remember I got dizzy a little and felt like we are walking in the same way all the time.
“And then we waited at the side of the road. Waiting and waiting and helicopters are always flying. And it was terrifying. Then a truck shows up and quick, we all ran into it.”

“For hours, we couldn’t move. And that was horrible in the truck, all packed together. And all like this, like this.” He draws himself into a tight knot. “I still remember a child, maybe he was 14, crying. He says he just wants a little bit of water, but they can’t stop. ‘No, you are almost there. Almost there.’

“And then we got to a house, and there is a guy at a table, and he is phoning people, saying, ‘Hey we got your son, your daughter.’ My dad sent someone with money to pick us up. And that friend took us to an apartment.”

Eventually through a network, Carlos found the construction job and stayed in Texas for a year, until he decided Vermont was worth a try.

“So I have been here five years,” Carlos says. “I never thought I would stay that long, but I got used to it. I like Vermont. The people are really nice, but,” he grinned, “the winter, not so much.”

Editor’s note: This story was based on conversations in Spanish and English, and one interview aided by a bilingual interpreter. Some names have been changed, and quotes have been edited for clarity.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Terry J. Allen

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Undocumented on the farm: Inside the life of a Vermont migrant dairy ..."
  • Will Workman

    Carlos seems like a nice guy. Now deport him. As for Ms. Allen, she should be arrested for abetting illegal activity. All the sympathy stories in the world aren’t going to change the fact that we have laws and those laws must be enforced until they are changed.

    Oh, and on average, labor accounts for 11% of the cost of produce. If farmers paid fair wages to local people, the cost of Cabit cheese would increase maybe 11%. Not a sufficient reason to excuse slave labor.

    • Steve Baker

      Does it seem Democrats are always the party in favor of slave labor?

      • wendywilton

        Yes, that is the party’s history.

        • Scott Greene

          Bizarre public exchange.

  • John Klar

    It’s just a bold lie to credit illegals with “saving” Vermont Farms. Read what Wendell Berry has been writing for forty years. Illegal workers are simply the latest vehicle for industrial interests to enslave our farms. Next it will be 50-cent-per-hour Chinese who we are told we need. I am compassionate for these immigrants: but they are a symptom of a deeper problem, and hardly the solution. And most small or sustainable farms do not benefit from these foreign workers at all — it is the large, polluting confinement dairies that “need” them. Cabot is dumping milk out — how are Mexicans reversing that quandary? Prostitutes also, and they are not committed to remaining through cold winters….

    • Steve Baker

      Just think if our ski and tourism industry was allowed to exploit illegals, wouldn’t that help their profitability also ?

      • Bruce Wilkie

        They do,

        • Steve Baker

          Really? The Vermont Ski industry exploit illegals? Wow, maybe thats more to write about.

          • chris wilmot

            Not in my experience. 5 yrs as a liftey and all of the immigrant workers were legal

  • Steve Baker

    How is it we sit back and condone the exploitation of slave labor?
    Let’s look at it this way, L.L. Bean or Orvis is going to move to Richford and open a factory. Their help wanted ad hits craigslist: HELP WANTED – must be illegal alien, Willingness to live in Cow Barn or a nearly inhabitable Trailers, Possess the ability to be randomly exploited. monthly social interaction with hookers. No requirement to read or write English. Must be able to sneak around and live underground. No state or federal laws are enforced, no safety or OSHA involved.

    What would Pat, Bernie, TJ, and Pete think of that situation?

    As far as some of the quotes in the article, if one estimate is 1000 to 2000 illegals, why wouldn’t we estimate the “tax revenue as $5 – 11 billion?

    Only 50% of illegal households file tax returns? BUT The argument has always been there hard-working taxpayers….

    “You qualify for free services” Means someone’s tax money is being used to pay for that “free” service.

    I know a lot of people don’t like to hear it and some publications don’t like to print it but it’s very simple “Follow the Law”

    • chris wilmot

      “Bi lingual preferred” is the term used

      • Steve Baker


        • chris wilmot

          Having lived in ca it’s not uncommon to get a “sorry-we are looking for bi lingual workers” when looking for work. i.e.: we only hire illegals

  • Ritva Burton

    After reading this article, I have to ask “wouldn’t it be safer, easier” to apply to come here legally?? A person wouldn’t face the dangers of desert, river crossings, paying a “coyote” a lot of money for an uncertain outcome? Then when they are here in the States the constant worry about getting deported, turned in to ICE, not living here openly and LEGALLY. Or does it come down to the fact that these folk do not want to become citizens and all along they plan to return to Mexico, Guatemala or wherever they came from??

  • chris wilmot

    This article is the definition of propaganda. Their is no way to know if the claims are true. What is known is that Carlos has shown a wllingness to flaunt US laws to get here to work illegally in order to benefit himself. What other criminals are given a platform to air their one sided stories of woe?

    • Jim Candon

      Agreed. This article is such a bunch of nonsense.

    • walter carpenter

      “What other criminals are given a platform to air their one sided stories of woe?”

      Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerton, Betsy DeVos, and so on to name a few at random.

  • Out of curiosity, did the farmer, who hired senor Carlos, pay payroll tax for Carlos? Did the farmer’s insurance policy cover Carlos? If Carlos was injured on the job, did the farmer have a policy to cover him? If down the road, Carlos has an issue related to working for the farmer what legal recourse does Carlos have?
    Did Carlos comply with federal law and file tax returns?
    How many federal and state laws, in total, have been violated between Carlos and the farmer?

    • wendywilton

      Ken, good questions. See my comments to John Freitag.

    • Lea Terhune

      Read: “Although his wages rose to $11.30 an hour plus a $150 monthly bonus when milk quality tests high, Carlos clears only about $9 hour. The difference is taxes.

      When they arrive at a farm, the migrants provide Social Security numbers. “They are all fake,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “Somebody just gives you one.”

      To stay legal, farmers withhold and file taxes — the benefits of which the worker can never collect in social security or unemployment benefits.”

      “Vermont’s undocumented pay almost $4 million a year in state and local taxes.”

      • chris wilmot

        No way to know how much if any is paid. They steal social security numbers to be able to work and collect welfare- most do t file tax returns.
        The numbers you cite is an estimation by pro illegal activist groups

      • Jon Corrigan

        If Vermont’s ‘undocumented’ really pay almost $4 million yearly in state/local taxes, then there are either many more of them than we’ve been led to believe, or the amount paid is grossly inflated. Since they’re paying with a ‘fake’ SSN, which is associated with some legal citizen’s name somewhere, precisely how does the VT Tax Department know which returns belong to an ‘undocumented’?

  • John Freitag

    You can not blame Carlos for wanting to make a better life.
    You can blame those who for their own profit break the law and exploit these undocumented migrants. There would be no need to waste billions on a wall on our border if, besides fines, there was a mandatory prison sentence for any employer not using the system to verify that their employee was legally here.
    There is a visa program H2a that provides for legal migrant workers on our fruit and vegetable farms in Vermont. This could easily be tweaked to allow for legal migrant workers on dairy farms. There would be like for other H2a migrants, travel cost covered, wage and workmens comp. requirements, and regulations on housing and living conditions. There would also be, like other H2a migrant workers, a limit on the time that can be worked and the need to exit and re-enter apply on a regular basis and any permanent immigration would need to go through the regular process.
    This might end up meaning that for some farmers,it would be cheaper to pay better wages and attract local help. It might mean that some farms that can only exist by exploiting illegal migrants go out of business. It would definitely mean that farmers currently obeying the law would no longer be put at a competitive disadvantage. Finally it might mean that we as consumers may have to pay a little more for our milk. All this is far better than turning a blind eye to the situation we now have that is
    both illegal and ripe for abuse.

    • chris wilmot

      Carlos chooses to exploit himself. Yes- he is to blame for his poor choice of flaunting US law rather than attempting to work legally in his home country
      No- we are not going to create permanent visas for dairy workers, what we currently have is adequate as these are not citizens- they are temp workers

      • John Freitag

        Hi Chris,
        Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, for far too many in this world there are only poor choices, and globalization while enriching some has put many in truly desperate circumstances where they are prey to unscrupulous employers. We need to do what we can to find compassionate and workable solutions with the long term goal of improving conditions worldwide and eliminating the need for illegal migration.
        In the meantime, tweaking H2a visas, a program that provides a legal way for temporary migrant workers, for dairy farms has the potential to be a reasonable and workable solution. Unfortunately changes proposed by Senator Leahy in the past were more akin to indentured servitude and did not go anywhere. Now, with the renewed focus and pressure on undocumented migrant dairy farm workers, is time for our talented congressional delegation to reach across the aisle to find a just way to address this problem.

        • Neil Johnson

          People don’t get it. This story is set up to make it look like Carlos is suffering, but he get’s America way better than most. 40% of America has a net worth of $0, yes zero dollars. He has in his pocket more money than 40% of America.

          Carlos has more disposable money than most Vermonters, his housing is paid for, he needs no car for work. Carlos could easily squirrel away $20k, per year and after 5 years have saved up $100k. They even talk about putting them selves in state where they won’t be tempted to blow the money.

          It’s no hardship to work more than 40 hours, it’s called farming. We’ve done it in America for centuries.

          Funny how Carlos can run two families on 30k a year and Vermonters cry poverty. We have no understanding how rich and fortunate we really are. Carlos knows, he smuggled him self into our country such that he could prosper like he couldn’t anywhere else in the world, we’re so rich we don’t even get that.

        • Lea Terhune
        • chris wilmot

          Again- as I have explained to you before/ a visa is for a temporary worker. You want a permanent worker status for illegals- that’s not logical

    • wendywilton

      I agree with John on this. We need a visa program for dairy farm workers. Why hasn’t our congressional delegation been able to do this? This would be a stand alone legislation or part of a comprehensive immigration reform.

      I made similar comments (needing a visa) in a VPR interview in response to the many news stories that have declared thousands of undocumented workers in VT. An agriculture lobbyist and a person from the state agency of agriculture called me to state that the vast majority of farm workers ARE documented have a social security number because employers cannot take a risk of being caught without paying taxes or covering the employee with worker’s comp. I asked how can the state (or the media) be touting the number of thousands of undocumented workers if they are really are not? It makes me question how pervasive the undocumented worker situation really is.

      Another wrinkle: I was also informed that because the state of VT does not require employers to report social security numbers to a federal clearing house called ‘E-Verify’ we are basically letting the state and the employer off the hook in hiring those with possible false ID or social security numbers. So we really have three situations: those who are legal, have a a social security number, those who have a fake ID and the employer considers legal but really aren’t, and those who have no ID and are truly illegal. Finding the real numbers on these groups would be valuable in crafting policy.

      • Jim Manahan

        How many years and how many opportunities has Senator Leahy had to do exactly what you outlined in between photo ops?

        • wendywilton

          Many years and opportunities to get the dairy farm visa done, especially while the Democrats were in power. The Ag community begged for it, but the three amigos still could not produce.

      • Lea Terhune

        ??? — “When they arrive at a farm, the migrants provide Social Security numbers. “They are all fake,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “Somebody just gives you one.”

        To stay legal, farmers withhold and file taxes — the benefits of which the worker can never collect in social security or unemployment benefits.”


        • chris wilmot

          They steal a SS number. It’s s crime called identity theft

    • Peter Chick

      I blame the wide spread corruption in too many countrise south of our border.

  • Peter Allan Burmeister

    The only way conventional dairy farmers in Vermont can remain even marginally viable is by employing exploited labor like Carlos. The abuses of the early 20th century sweatshops continue on the mega-farms of Vermont where immigrants work unconscionable hours at low wages to produce milk that gets dumped into manure pits because no one wants or needs it. The only future for dairy in Vermont is organic, especially those small farms that pasteurize and bottle their own product (Rogers Farmstead, Strafford Organic, Kimball Brook, Butterworks to name just a few). The big farms pollute our waterways, break our nation’s laws, take advantage of the weak and desperate, and need to be recognized for the useless dinosaurs that they are.

    • Jim Manahan

      Your rant about “mega-farms” and the suggestion that the only future is organic is awesomely ignorant, finally top of your class. Carlos isn’t being exploited, as I’m sure he’s free to move along and enroll in med school or another endeavor just like he skipped town and jumped the border to get here. Perhaps you missed the news where the City of Burlington just polluted our big waterway with about a million gallons of sewage (again) and our esteemed former Governor was exposed for taking advantage of his weak and desperate neighbor, where your overly generalized rant about dastardly big farms is not only wrong, it misses pretty much anyone and everyone among the elites who do the same in different ways.

  • Scott Greene

    Thank you for this great bit of journalism Terry Allen, and thank you for an empathetic human picture.

    Farmers should offer better conditions if they plan on hiring live-in workers, regardless.

    Let’s get real reforming immigration rules are a Zero priority right now, and steps towards legal work visas and immigration were immediately undone by Trump executive orders and policy. Federal law supersedes states rights. Yes the situation would be different if pragmatic Vermonters wrote the laws governing Agricultural labor.

    Alternatively Prison CO., and their “innocent” shareholders are making bundles building detention facilities and incarcerating all suspected “illegals” including folks who have overstayed legitimate work visas.
    We taxpayers then pay for the imprisonment of folks with very few legal rights, as well as paying for all the overblown paramilitary gear and technology to catch incredibly willing workers.

    Or to summarize in a loud dogmatic way, Laundering money from tax payers into the hands of Fat cats, to catch and release a bunch of poor not-white folks.

  • Tim Vincent

    If your business is heavily labor-dependent and your model is illegal labor, then at best you have a questionable model and at worst an illegal one.
    People like the author are really helping to propagate this illegality in return for “feeling good” about themselves.

  • Justin Boland

    “But beyond its economic contribution, dairy farming defines Vermont’s landscape, culture and allure.” No more than logging, fur trading or granite quarries did. Things change.

    • Steve Baker

      Soon to be Windmill littered ridges and Black mirrored pastures.

  • Paul Richards

    “The receptionist quickly scanned his paperwork. “We have a sliding scale,” and with obvious pleasure, told Carlos, “You just qualify for free services.””
    So this kid makes $30,000 a year? Is that cash, not taxed? Either way, I know people who make a lot less than that and don’t get these services for free and they pay taxes! Why should he get these services for free? Why should we fund any part of this? Another reason to defund PP.

    • JohnGreenberg

      “Either way, I know people who make a lot less than that and don’t get these services for fre” WHERE do they get the services? At Planned Parenthood? Or somewhere else? If Planned Parenthood, then they probably DO get them for free. If elesewhere, how is that pertinent?

    • walter carpenter

      “So this kid makes $30,000 a year? Is that cash, not taxed?”

      “Vermont’s undocumented pay almost $4 million a year in state and local taxes.”

      • Jim Manahan

        Thanks Walter, you likely don’t realize you pointed out that Paul was correct to ask, since that number is so low, it’s obvious many are not paying state, local or federal taxes.

  • Christopher Daniels

    The anti-immigrant nastiness displayed by the commentators is sickening. Law and order, law and order, they demand. How dare someone come here to make a living for their family? How dare the journalist tell the story? Arrest the journalist!

    • David Dempsey

      I am not anti-immigrant and I don’t feel that most of the commentators are either. I think it is great that people from other countries can come to America and go through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen. I don’t agree that a farmer should be to allowed to use an illegal underground human smuggling operation to find cheap labor to stay in business. Other businesses in Vermont that are struggling to make ends meet would be prosecuted for hiring illegal immigrants. Why should we look the other way when the farmers do it?

    • Jon Corrigan

      Who’s anti-immigrant here Chris? Many of us don’t condone illegal immigration. Do not civilized nations have laws, and are we not expected to follow them?

      Here’s the quote that infuriated me: ‘When they arrive at a farm, the migrants provide Social Security
      numbers. “They are all fake,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “Somebody
      just gives you one.”

      No, Carlos – the numbers belong to some legal American. You’re the fake. The farmer who’s not required to verify it is a fake. My number has been stolen and used multiple times in my life and it’s not pleasant trying to deal with the aftermath.

      Send your social security number to ‘Migrant Justice’ Chris, if you are so outraged that someone might object to theirs being used. Take one for your team and put your money where your mouth is.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      Luckily we know from the commentary track record that “Operation Law and Order” is really just a fringe political minority with no realistic suggestions or concepts – only deeply held fear and anxiety of “others”. For these reasons, the nastiness you correctly point out will continue even though the State of VT has pretty much spoken on these issues and it is time to move on to codifying worker rights, amnesty programs and the environmental issues that have also been pointed out.

      The level of self righteous ironic law and order hypocrisy has become almost comical. Some of the commentary clearly comes from current or ex-law enforcement professionals who should know better than to hold up the sanctity of the law in this country. Inside insight should remind them that (at least in terms of immigration) it’s who you know and how much cash you can sling that facilitates sponsored documentation and privileges that are obviously unknown to the most desperate migrant workers. Lets start immigration reform at the top if we truly believe in justice.

    • Steve Baker

      Chris, What laws should we enforce? Every election cycle, should we decide which ones to follow? I’d like the tax laws not to be followed. Pat, Pete, TJ, Bernie and the author should advocate ignoring State and Federal tax laws.

      • David Dempsey

        I agree. I’m not crazy about speeding tickets either. Maybe we can get TJ to tell the cops not to enforce them.

  • Robert Fireovid

    The majority of comments are fabulous! The law is very clear (see below). Wouldn’t it be great if we had a nationwide effort to arrest and jail any dairy farmer who employs illegal aliens? Wouldn’t it be great if journalists wrote instead about why the opioid epidemic results, in part, from chronic unemployment and from employers who use foreign slaves rather than pay U.S. citizens decent wages?

    8 U.S. Code § 1324 –

    Any person who –

    (ii) knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an
    alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of
    law, transports, or moves or attempts to transport or move such alien within
    the United States by means of transportation or otherwise, in furtherance of
    such violation of law;

    (iii) knowing or in reckless
    disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the
    United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from
    detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, such alien
    in any place, including any building or any means of transportation;

    (I) engages in any conspiracy to
    commit any of the preceding acts, or

    (II) aids or abets the commission
    of any of the preceding acts,

    …shall be punished as provided in subparagraph (B).

  • Dan Carver

    The State should require our welfare recipients to job shadow Carlos and his compatriots, so the Vermonters could get a glimpse of the states past; when there was an honest work ethic!

    Just think of how amazed some Vermonters would be to find out that such staples as Hot Pockets or microwavable meals are processed foods; they aren’t fresh picked from a farm!

  • Lea Terhune

    Well done Terry. Thanks VD.

  • Phil Greenleaf

    In reply to the commentary pointing out consistently angry “law and order” comments on Digger:
    Luckily we know from the commentary track record that “Operation Law and Order” is a fringe political minority with no realistic suggestions or concepts – only deeply held fear and anxiety of “others”. For these reasons, the nastiness Chris Daniels correctly points out will continue even though the State of VT has pretty much spoken on these issues and it is time to move on to codifying worker rights, amnesty programs and the environmental issues that have also been pointed out.

    The level of self righteous ironic law and order hypocrisy has become almost comical. Some of the commentary clearly comes from current or ex-law enforcement professionals who should know better than to hold up the sanctity of the law in this country. Inside insight should remind them that (at least in terms of immigration) it’s who you know and how much cash you can sling that facilitates sponsored documentation and privileges that are obviously unknown to the most desperate migrant workers. Lets start immigration reform at the top if we truly believe in justice.

    • John Freitag

      Hi Phil.
      No one in our country, including President Trump , is above the law, and none of us have the right to pick and choose what laws we obey. If any of us, and this includes undocumented farm workers or those that employ them break the law they must be willing to face the consequences. The same , I think you would agree, goes for our President.
      Having worked in public schools for over three decades, we do not tell children here are the rules and chose which ones to follow. Having taken an oath of office as a public servant to uphold the law means I do not get to chose which laws we follow and which we don’t.
      If we feel laws are unjust, we must do the hard work needed to change them. We must also work hard to elect people with the courage and conviction to make and apply laws equally and fairly to all.

      • Phil Greenleaf

        Well said – we also need to be able to trust those entrenched in power to do the right thing every now and then/ My commentary asserts that the grand call for law and order on this matter is motivationally suspect due to inconsistent and strangely targeted insistence.

        The example we need to set in law enforcement starts with the major abusers and fixers within the system/corporate world – not with the economically struggling. If our house can be put in order from the top down, then we have a case to make.

        Let’s not assume, also, that activism from folks like Migrant Justice implies that undocumented workers feel privileged and are not ready to face “consequences”. For many, they have repeatedly faced consequences both in home countries and here that you and I will likely never face.

  • Nathan Denny

    As long as there are wage disparities between economic zones, laborers will migrate to fill those jobs, legally or illegally. You can’t blame someone for wanting to work hard for a paycheck. However, the real story lies in the surplus production of dairy products at prices that don’t support profitability and livable wages, for farmer and laborers. All subsidies and supports to this dying dairy industry should be fazed out. Our lakes would be cleaner, more jobs would be created, and there would be more affordable housing. I do wonder, though, if there were a resulting boom in housing construction, would those contractors rush to use undocumented (slave) labor to maximize their profit? Or if Vermonters really want to work hard anymore?