Missing the mark in Vermont
In the hubbub over the recent crackdown on employers hiring illegal migrant workers, the one statement that seems to define the situation in Vermont is that the hiring of migrant workers is not about cheap labor, it’s about hiring dependable labor in a market where no others are willing to do the work.If Congress, the administration and the federal bureaucracy could tailor federal laws around that single premise, perhaps a workable immigration law (or amendment) that applies to dairy farms could be written and passed.As it is, Congress is hog-tied over conflicting political desires: providing a dependable labor force for employment sectors like dairy farms, versus the possibility of allowing illegal immigrants to take jobs away from Americans in need of work.The recent push by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaucracy to demand I-9 audits from various employers around the nation undoubtedly makes more sense for a nuclear power plant near a large city, for instance, than it does for Vermont’s farms. One can understand the political desire to make it harder for American industry to hire the cheapest labor possible, when unemployment is so high in that same region. Making sure industry hires American workers for available jobs makes good sense.But on Vermont’s dairy farms, as in other states, the issue is not so much how much a laborer is paid, but whether workers can be hired who are willing to work long and hard hours with few days off. According to many Vermont farmers, the latter is the case.“The stress for us is, ‘Where is the next employee going to come from?’” said an Addison County dairy farmer in a story in today’s issue. (See Page 1.) “It would be great to find an American that would be willing to work seven days a week … (But) everyone wants their weekends. Everybody wants their holidays off.”“This increased immigration enforcement activity threatens the viability of farm businesses,” added Bridport dairy farmer Marie Audet in a recent story. “We need a qualified pool of labor available year round… (This is) like getting kicked in the teeth when you’re already down.”The dairy industry may, in fact, be unique to this problem for one simple reason: dairy cows need to be milked twice daily, and, increasingly, three times a day. No exceptions. It’s work that has to be done 365 days a year. Few other farm activities can make a similar claim.Members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are sympathetic to the plight of the state’s dairy farmers, but so far have not been able to pass an immigration policy that makes sense amidst the nation’s competing political interests. But perhaps, as Cornwall farmer John Roberts suggested in a previous story last week, the harsh tactics put in place by the bureaucracy overseeing the crackdown on migrant farm laborers will prompt Congress to address immigration reform in a more direct and urgent manner. “If all the illegal immigrants disappeared overnight in this country, this county’s economy would come to a grinding halt,” Roberts said. “I just hope that maybe this will be a cattle prod to the administration and to Congress to look seriously at reforming this system.”That may be the most hopeful outcome of an otherwise unfortunate bureaucratic initiative that catches Vermont dairy farmers in a broadly cast net that misses its intended mark.