MIDDLEBURY — A visit from the Mexican consul general last Saturday brought out hundreds of members of an often invisible population in Addison County.
In a fair-like atmosphere at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, Mexican nationals — many of them workers on area dairy farms — applied for passports and ID cards, registered to vote, sought medical help and received guidance on labor rights and educational opportunities from staff of the Mexican Consulate in Boston and from various other organizations.
Consul General Daniel Hernandez Joseph said he and his staff hold meetings of this sort all over New England to meet with constituents, including two to three trips to Vermont each year.
|Read the account of a Mexican farmworker in Addison County|
Here in New England, he said, the visits are necessary to ensure that the basic needs of the population are being met. Mexican nationals here don’t have the community resources that spring up in population centers in California or Texas. Los Angeles, for example, has an estimated 2 million Mexican residents, compared to no more than 3,000 Mexicans in Vermont, many of them isolated and lacking reliable transportation.
“They’re more spread out, and they’re not congregating,” said Joseph. “They’re more vulnerable, and more in need of specific care.”
So while the consulate staff issued ID cards and passports, registered children born to Mexican citizens, and offered information on consular resources for Mexican citizens, the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition provided food and donated winter clothing, and the Open Door Clinic offered basic checkups and doctor appointments, and other organizations offered handouts with information on everything from legal rights and responsibilities to identifying sexual abuse. Representatives from Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute were also on hand to register people for absentee voting in the upcoming 2012 elections.
Area churches donated sandwiches, fruit and cookies for everyone who showed up.
Cheryl Connor, co-convener of the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition, said the turnout for Joseph’s visit was the largest she’s seen in years, which means that more migrant workers are getting word about the event, finding transportation to Middlebury, and taking advantage of the resources available to them.
“It’s wonderful to see,” she said.
A handful of medical students from the University of Vermont also attended, helping with paperwork and blood pressure checks for the Open Door Clinic.
Carol Causton, a volunteer nurse for the Open Door Clinic, said the event represents a rare opportunity to inform migrant farm workers of the availability of free health care in the county, and to perform checkups and vaccinate as many attendees as possible.
“It’s a fairly healthy population, though,” she said.
Around noon, Joseph and his staff also took a break from their work to hold a meeting exclusively for Mexican citizens. Joseph said the purpose of the meeting was to hear about the specific needs, concerns and struggles of constituents in Addison County, so that the consulate can better address specific issues.
Joseph said he knows much of the population here in Vermont is in the country illegally, which raises difficulties in identifying the Mexican population and reaching out to all constituents. But as a state, he said Vermont is addressing the issue of ensuring a safe population — documented or not — in a way that no one else is.
“Nowhere is it handled as generally, as frankly as in Vermont,” said Joseph.
That, he said, is important for overall public safety.
“The more you have rules and regulations that push (undocumented Mexican migrants) into the darkness, the harder it is to know how many there are here, and where they are,” he said. “How will they trust authority if they’re victims of a crime? It makes them more vulnerable to abuse.”
Joseph said it’s a particular consideration in Vermont, with what he estimates to be close to 50 percent of labor on dairy farms across the state coming from Mexican workers.
“They’re contributing to the economy, but the majority probably don’t have immigration documents,” he said.
Joseph said he does understand the opposition that many in the U.S. have to undocumented labor.
“We’re not making that decision for our citizens. We’re not encouraging them to leave Mexico,” he said.
From the governmental end, Joseph said Mexico is trying its hardest to build up good jobs within his own country. That’s important, because the people who are leaving the country are the entrepreneurial ones — the ones willing to put forward large sums to cross the border for the chance to earn more money.
Joseph said that, in many ways, times are changing. According to data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, the average net migration into the United States from Mexico between 2000 and 2005 was 400,000 people. Between 2006 and 2010, that number dropped to less than 170,000.
Joseph said the center estimates that the net migration from Mexico could fall to zero in the coming years.
“People are still coming, but people are also going back,” said Joseph.
He said there’s no way of knowing exactly what is most affecting the migration rate — it could be the job market, harsher immigration law enforcement, higher costs of immigration or increasing dangers and risks of migration.
But he said he thinks it’s also be the expanding middle class in Mexico, the government’s universal health care policy and an increased access to microcredit loans that allow people to start small businesses and buy houses.
Over the past 12 years, said Joseph, Mexico has also lifted 14 million people out of extreme poverty, according to United Nations standards.
While Joseph said that doesn’t mean those people are part of the growing middle class, the fact that 12 percent of the population is no longer wondering where their next meal will come from is “one of the most solid ways in which we can contribute and make people feel that they don’t have to emigrate.”
Still, Joseph said Mexico and the United States need to come to some sort of compromise on immigration law.
“Immigration into, out of and through a country should be safe, legal and orderly,” he said. “It’s a human right to migrate, but it should be done legally.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.