Politics

Legislation provides $1,200 for migrant farmworkers and others left out of CARES Act payments

Migrant Justice
A Migrant Justice member holds up a sign during a 2019 demonstration in Burlington. Photo by Jacob Dawson/VTDigger

The budget on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk contains $5 million to provide $1,200 payments for Vermonters who were excluded from CARES Act funding, including migrant workers and their families. 

Vermont is poised to become the first state to offer a comprehensive program of this type, and lawmakers and advocates celebrate it as a move toward more equitable treatment of migrants. 

But important questions remain about how the state will distribute that money, and migrant farmworkers aren’t considering this a victory yet.  

Many migrant workers in the state have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, essential to agriculture, hospitality and construction. Yet they have been ineligible for government relief payments because of their immigration status, or in some cases lack of a Social Security number. If a taxpayer had a single family member lacking lawful status, the entire family was ineligible for CARES Act funding.

“It doesn’t benefit me at all to be considered essential, if I’m not counted as a person,” a migrant farmworker who identified herself as Pati told VTDigger. Pati is originally from Chiapas, Mexico, and has lived in Vermont for nine years. She works on a dairy farm in the northern part of the state.

She has been a leader in the farmworker community, pushing since April for the state to provide payments to migrant workers. When it became clear the CARES Act would not cover them, the news came as a “big blow.”

“We weren’t counted as though we exist, and we do exist in this state, and in this country, but people don’t want to see that,” said Pati, pointing to the irony that her presence can be ignored, even as her work is deemed essential.

The pandemic has been a difficult time for migrant farmworkers. For many of them, Pati said, the pandemic meant not being able to go shopping for essentials. For workers on larger farms, there are concerns about coming into contact with high numbers of people who come and go from the farm. And for others, close living quarters mean concerns about how quickly the virus may be able to spread. 

Additionally, Pati said that many migrant workers wouldn’t seek medical treatment if they needed it because of fear of coming into contact with the police. In particular, she worries about her daughter, who has asthma.

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The migrant farmworkers organized through Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based organization that fights for human rights for migrant workers. Their initial proposal for funding was not met, but lobbyists and activists continued calling for a program of this kind. In a budget restatement from August, the governor proposed appropriating $2 million to partially fund the program.

“If the entire nation agrees that people should get stimulus payments, then everybody should get stimulus payments,” said Xusana Davis, the state’s first executive director of  racial equity. Davis was appointed by the governor last year. Her job: addressing “systemic racial disparities.” 

While there is some precedent for these types of payments, the Vermont program is unique in a few important ways. California has also made payments to migrant workers, but only for $500, and funding was limited to a first-come first-serve basis. Vermont’s plan offers an equal amount to all adults, and children are also included, which was not the case in California.

The state estimates 4,000 adults and 1,000 children would be covered by the funding in H.968. Of those, about 1,250 are dairy workers; 1,750 work in other sectors. An estimated 500 people are citizens and legal residents who file taxes with undocumented spouses.

But Davis says it’s difficult to obtain these numbers. “Many of them are literally hunted by ICE and so it can be really difficult to get a clear picture of who they are and how many,” Davis said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement focuses its efforts on border states, like Vermont. 

“We don’t know as much as we would like to, and a lot of that is our own fault,” Davis said. “We’re talking about a population that is often difficult to identify because they often operate in the shadows.”

Experience has given migrants reason to mistrust state initiatives. For instance, data from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles was sent to ICE beginning in 2013, as migrant workers became able to obtain driver’s licenses.  

For Davis, the aid program for migrant farmworkers “is about equity.” Legislators and advocates — including Rural Vermont the Northeast Organic Farming Association Vermont, and the state Human Rights Commission —  who joined Migrant Justice in promoting the program agree. 

“It’s a really important step for us as a community to acknowledge that there are many people of color who are in Vermont’s food system,” said Grace Oedel, executive director of the Organic Farming Association. “We render communities invisible by not including them.”

The role of third parties

Important questions remain about how the funding will be distributed.  Davis and other advocates know that many migrant workers distrust the government, and lawmakers tried to take that into consideration.

“I think the state proposing and paying for this and then allowing for third parties to administer it really gets at the fact that the state recognizes that it’s the right thing to do,” Davis said. Use of third parties is intended to boost participation in the program, recognizing that migrants are hesitant to share sensitive information with the government.

According to Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, the bill’s wording does not specifically allow third parties to disburse the money without exposing migrant information. The bill would allow third parties to “help in getting money out the door and to the people,” Conquest said, but it is unclear how exactly they would help, and the state has yet to designate which third parties it will work with.

Conquest said third parties that have built trust with migrant farmworkers would be allowed to help with outreach. “They would help perhaps folks to fill out application forms. They might even establish a place where people could receive their payments.” But, importantly, he said, “the payments will come from the state of Vermont and be for the specific recipient.”   

Maddie Kempner, a policy director of Northeast Organic Farming Association Vermont, agreed it’s “probably a mischaracterization” to say third-party organizations would administer the funds. “I think the fund is going to be directly administered through the state,” she said. She didn’t think NOFA-VT would be at the top of the list of organizations to serve as third parties, but Migrant Justice and the Human Rights Commission would be.

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According to Pati, many migrant workers are afraid to take money directly from the government. “We don’t want to share our data with the government,” Pati said, citing fears about how the government will use that information in the future. “We cannot trust that they are not going to use it against us.”

Another important question is what form the payments will take. Many migrant workers do not have bank accounts or direct deposit, said Will Lambek, a staff coordinator at Migrant Justice. The organization recently distributed relief payments to migrant workers from donations it had received, and opted to give those payments in cash because it made the most sense. The state has yet to specify how it will make payments.

“That part is yet to come,” Pati said. “That’s the most difficult.” and that is why “we are not proclaiming victory yet.”

Editor’s note: The headline of this story was clarified to specify who is eligible for payments.

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Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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