By POOJA SHAHANI
ADDISON COUNTY — In a little more than a week American voters are going to cast their votes in an historic election as the nation faces one of its worst economic crises.
For area dairy farmers who have become more and more dependent on migrant laborers, one issue has transcended party affiliation: immigration reform. And for many there is an urgent need for something to happen.
“We need a realistic immigration policy — a system with a good and solid policy including a reasonable border control discouraging illegal immigration, but open to a thoughtful program permitting migrant workers to enter the United States to work in industries that American workers do not want to work in,” said John Roberts, who keeps 200 cows on his Cornwall farm and employs two migrant laborers.
Today, Vermont’s dairy farms employ an estimated 2,000 migrant workers, 500 of which work in Addison County. Migrant workers help with milking cows, working in the barns, and maintaining the daily operation of dairy farming.
“If I were to snap my fingers to remove every migrant worker in America, it would bring the country to a standstill. They fill low-skilled but very important jobs,” Roberts said.
“It’s not just agriculture and not just Vermont. The Hispanic workforce is booming nationally,” pointed out Tim Howlett, who milks 950 cows on his Bridport spread. “The way I view it is that you can either import the labor or export the jobs. Do you want to buy milk that’s produced in a country that has nowhere near the regulations and safety net that we do here?”
Howlett employs three migrant workers.
“We’ve employed Hispanic workers since 2001 and it’s been a huge asset to the farm in terms of stability and reliability,” Howlett said. “They are here to earn money to send home to Mexico and that’s all they’re here for. This isn’t their life. This is a means to earn more money.”
Like most farmers, Howlett emphasized that Americans need to understand that migrant workers are not stealing American jobs.
“You’ve got to respect a guy that is willing to go thousands of miles away to try to make something out of nothing. They are not here to do evil by taking American jobs,” he said.
And yet the migrant workers, most of whom come from Mexico, don’t always have the proper immigration documents that would allow them to work beyond a certain period in the United States. When their limited visas run out, some are deported back to their homelands causing not only a hardship for the workers, but a disruption in the working of the Addison County farms where they work.
The national debate on immigration reform is close to the heart of Cheryl Connor, who employs five migrant workers on the Bridport dairy farm she owns. Connor also is co-chair of the Addison County Farm Worker’s Coalition.
Connor says federal legislation is needed.
“An ag-jobs bill would say that we would be allowed migrant workers for certain period of time and they would be on a certain farm and they would be free to go back to Mexico and perhaps bring their family here,” she said.
“We have so many migrant workers here, and it’s the number-one need in the agriculture industry.”
Howlett echoed the need for very specific immigration law changes.
“There should be someway to legally get guys here on a one year renewal work visa and treat it like a work contract, which basically would automatically renew or expire or let that discussion happen between the employer and the employee,” he said.
Roberts agreed that this is an issue that needs to be addressed at the federal level. He thinks both major presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, seem to have an understanding of the issue.
“McCain tried to have an intelligent approach to immigration policy, but he was put down by the Republican Party who think it’s about building fences,” Roberts said. “Neither candidate is taking a public position on immigration policy. But it is not the most important issue on my list … I’m going to base my vote on a man who can do improve the economy, education and foreign policy.”
“I am a believer of a tight border, but not of a guard hunting these people down. I don’t want America to turn into a police-state of unbelievable portion.”
While Roberts, Connor and Howlett have similar views on the need for changes in immigration law, they’re views on who should be the next president differ.
“I expect Obama to win and I have high hopes for him,” said Roberts, who is supporting the Democratic Party nominee.
Earlier this month, Connor was undecided who she will vote for in the presidential election. She said what she was looking for in a candidate was someone who recognized that the dairy industry needed migrant workers and someone who would implement policies that would help farms support migrant workers.
“I will probably vote Republican because they are more in line with what I feel,” Howlett said. “My wife feels the same.”
While none of these three farmers see the presidential election turning on the issue of migrant labor, the issue is obviously quite important to these Addison County dairy farmers since they all employ migrant laborers.
“This country, especially the agriculture in this country, would cease to exist without migrant workers,” Connor said.