Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series about agriculture and immigration reform.
MIDDLEBURY— More than 150 Mexican farm laborers on Saturday came to a mobile consulate event hosted by the Mexican government in Middlebury. For the event, diplomats from the Mexican consulate in Boston came to Vermont to help Mexican nationals in the area get passports and other government-issued documents.
“Every month we do at least one visit to the communities where we have the greatest number of Mexican nationals,” said Deputy Consul-General Graciela Gómez.
The mobile consulate was a coordination between the consulate’s Boston office and the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition, an organization that promotes the welfare of the estimated 250 immigrant laborers in Addison County.
“We can’t milk cows without migrant workers, because nobody else shows up for a job,” said Cheryl Connor, a member of the Coalition. “They’re so valuable in that they love what they’re doing and very good at what they do.”
Most who attended the event at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society were men — some just teenagers while others were well into middle age — but there were also women and children.
A dozen Mexican officials made the trip from the Boston office, which serves Mexican citizens in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
However minute, there was a legal risk for immigrants to come to the event. Though the consulate has a right to serve its citizens, American immigration officials could hypothetically have come to the event to verify the legal status of those present, many of whom were likely in the country illegally.
If caught, immigrants would face deportation.
Both the consulate and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the legal status of the immigrants at the mobile consulate. Both said what is most important is to provide crucial services to the Mexican immigrants in Addison County.
Gómez said the utmost priority of the consulate is to protect Mexican citizens.
“In the whole United States we have different authorities and different approaches to dealing with non-documented migrants,” Gómez said. “Sadly, not all of America is Vermont — in other cities we have had cases of our undocumented nationals being attacked or targeted, if people know there are events like this.”
While Gómez stressed that though mobile consulate events like the one in Middlebury are legal and protected by international law, the consulate tries to keep a low profile.
“People with a different ideology, they know if Mexicans are meeting at a school or a place like that, they will come and there will be aggression,” Gómez said. “That is why, as a rule in general, we tend to be very discreet about this.”
Francisco Méndez, the documentation consul, said he did not know how many of the Mexican nationals at the mobile consulate were in the United States illegally.
“We don’t ask those sorts of questions; we don’t care about their legal status,” Méndez said. “It’s not our business — they are Mexican citizens and they’re welcome to come to us.”
Gómez said that her office relies on local NGOs, whom she described as their “partners in the field.”
“They work with migrants on a daily basis,” Gómez said. “We let them know well in advance that we are coming and what kinds of services we’re going to provide.”
Mexican nationals could not only apply for or renew passports there but also for a matricula consular, an identification issued by the Mexican government that can be used as a photo ID in the United States.
Matricula consular IDs are helpful to undocumented immigrants because they are officially recognized by the United States — legal immigrants already have U.S.-issued documents, such as a permanent residence ID, known as a Green Card.
Honorio, a 20-year-old who has been in the United States for two and a half years, came to renew his passport. Pépe, 48, came for the same reason. Both work on dairy farms in Addison County, and entered the country illegally.
The consulate also brought an immigration attorney to give pro bono advice to immigrants, though the consulate itself does not inject itself into immigration proceedings.
Méndez said it is important to reach out to Mexicans living in rural areas because often they do not have the means or the time to travel long distances.
“The more they work, the more money they can make,” Méndez said. “So, if they stop working one or two days, it’s not going to be a benefit to them.”
Gómez said the consulate is also actively trying to combat fraud. She described how third parties have falsely claimed they can help migrants secure paperwork — for a fee.
“In several cities, people have represented themselves as facilitators who say, ‘If you pay me so and so, I’ll get you a passport the same day,’” Gómez said. “We only charge for the expedition of documents; we don’t take into account any third parties who will come and try to charge you.”
MEXICAN CONSULATE OFFICIALS help Mexican nationals living in Addison County secure government documents at the mobile consulate set up at Middlebury’s Unitarian Church Saturday.
Méndez praised his countrymen and women who made the arduous journey to the United States.
“I admire these people who come to a country where they don’t speak the language, and the climate is completely different,” Méndez said.
Members of the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition also underscored the value of immigrant laborers.
“If migrant workers weren’t in the Champlain Valley, you would see dairy farmers pulling their hair out, because we need them,” said Cheryl Connor, of the Coalition. Connor owns a dairy farm in Addison County that milks 140 cows. She employs two immigrant workers.
“It makes their lives very, very difficult, and certainly for lives of the farmers that are hiring them,” said Cheryl Mitchell, a member of the Coalition and former deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. “These people have a right to be here, we just haven’t figured out the legal means yet — if we ever get real immigration reform passed, the group that’s here will be recognized.”
Connor said the United States needs a long-term visa program for dairy laborers.
“As workers train, they get more and more proficient at their jobs,” Connor said. If (a visa) is only for 1-2 years, they have to leave and start all over again.”
When Connor first hosted a consulate meeting, it was held at the Bridport school. She has organized more than 10.
“People were so afraid to come into town, afraid they’d be seen and picked up by (immigration officials) or the police,” Mitchell said. “It used to be, social service agencies were afraid that if they served migrant workers they would have their funding pulled.”
After a few years, Connor moved the event to its current location, the Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury. Connor said this location is better because it has Internet access and a photocopier, which allows the consulate to process documents quickly.
It was the consulate that encouraged Connor to let the community know the good the Coalition was doing.
“When we first started we would not allow a reporter in our meetings,” Connor said. “Then the Mexican consulate came to us and said, ‘If you don’t publicize what is happening, it will never get better.’”
In addition to consulate services, local NGOs provided medical screenings and rides to and from the event.
On a table in the sanctuary donated winter clothes were piled high — many of the immigrants in Vermont come from southern Mexico, where temperatures never dip below freezing. There were also framed photographs of the Virgin Mary for the immigrants to take, if they desired.
Students from Middlebury College helped translate for the immigrants, most of whom did not speak proficient English.
Nurse practitioner students from the University of Vermont volunteered to screen for blood pressure and high glucose, and UVM medical students were on hand to give basic checkups to any immigrants who were interested.
The Mexicans could also get flu and tetanus shots, free of charge. A dentist offered free dental exams.
John Paul Kelada, one of the UVM medical students, said migrant workers are in need of medical services.
“Many don’t see doctors enough; there are chronic issues that aren’t being managed,” Kelada said.
He added that he saw several cases of hypertension, a disease easily treated with medication. The problem is, most immigrants don’t have the financial resources to fill prescriptions.
Throughout the day, immigrants trickled through. After filling out paperwork, they waited, sometimes for hours, in rows of plastic chairs in the sanctuary while consulate officials, who all wore red so as to be easily identified, processed their paperwork. Consulate staff sat at a bank of computers next to a box of blank passports.
Gómez, a 25-year veteran of the Foreign Service, said that she and her colleagues at the consulate feel the work they do is very important.
“It is the foundation of our duty,” Gómez said. “This is not about big issues, not about international relations — it’s about getting services to our Mexican nationals and hopefully making a change in their lives.”
See the other articles in this series: