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Diplomats aid Mexican dairy farm workers

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Posted on December 30, 2016 |
By Gaen Murphree



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DEPUTY CONSUL GRACIELA Gomez Garcia, left, and Consul General Emilio Rabasa address Mexican citizens living and working in Vermont at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society last month. Rabasa urged parents to obtain Mexican birth certificates for their American-born children, so that families could not be split up if the parents were deported. Independent photo/Gaen Murphree

MIDDLEBURY — Freddie and Gladis, Mexican citizens, have worked on Vermont dairy farms since 2010. Last month the couple brought their two-month-old daughter, Charlene, from Stowe, where they live, to Middlebury for the annual visit by officials from the Mexican Consulate of Boston.

They came to get a Mexican birth certificate for the pink-swathed baby, a new service offered by the Mexican diplomats.

The wish for birth certificates was part of a dominant theme at this year’s annual visit from the Mexican Consulate — uncertainty.

Most specifically, many of the nearly 200 Mexicans and others at the Dec. 10 event felt uncertainty as to how U.S. immigration policy will change under a Trump administration and what that might mean for the largely Mexican and largely undocumented work force critical to Vermont’s dairies.

“A lot of people right now are a little bit afraid of the new president and what policies he may bring,” said New Hampshire immigration attorney Enrique Mesa, who had been invited by the consulate to provide free legal advice at the Middlebury event. “I’m here just to squash any fears that they may have with regards to a mass deportation or anything like that.

Continued Mesa, “It’s just a time of uncertainty, and I think a lot of people are afraid about it. I know that this doesn’t help anybody, but we really are in a wait-and-see mode right now.”

Part of that uncertainty, said Mesa, was waiting to see how closely President Trump’s actual policy would adhere to statements made by candidate Trump on the campaign trail.

“Everything that his administration has been saying right now is they’re going to be focused on criminals. That is a far cry from what he himself was trumpeting for the past two years. So it’s going to be a very interesting time,” Mesa said.

The Boston consulate, which serves Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island, has been coming to Middlebury since at least 2003. It is one of two Vermont events at which the foreign service officials reach out to provide services for Mexican nationals working in Vermont, said Deputy Consul General Graciela Gomez Garcia.

As in past years, the consulate helped attendees with passports and a type of Mexican-issued identification called a matricula consular. This year, the consulate also offered several new services, including Mexican birth certificates and Mexican voter cards (one of the most common types of official identification used in Mexico).

The event drew around 180 attendees and issued 257 documents, said Gomez Garcia. Last year, the mobile consulate served around 120 people and issued 106 documents.

ABUZZ WITH SPANISH

Attendees began arriving before 9 a.m., crowding into the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. The air was abuzz with Spanish. And the crowd, mostly young men, coming singly or in groups, was able to access a variety of services.

Organizers had put together a winter coat drive, and free food was available. In addition to Mesa’s free legal advice, WomenSafe and Vermont Migrant Education Program had representatives on hand. Other organizations had Spanish-English literature available. Middlebury College students helped provide childcare. Throughout the day, consulate officials gave short presentations on matters of importance to the Mexican community.

A particularly important service for many attendees was medical and dental screening, offered by the Open Door Clinic.

“This is a unique opportunity for not so much the workers in Addison County who have access to fully bilingual health care year round but for a lot of the folks who are from other counties that might be closer to the border or where accessing health care is much more dangerous,” said Open Door Nurse Case Manager Julia Doucet. “This provides them a safe space to at least get a baseline of where they stand in terms of health. They have an opportunity to see a provider without having to put themselves in jeopardy of leaving the farm.”

Doucet said that over the course of a year, around 57 percent of the Open Door Clinic’s usual clients are migrant farmworkers.

One notable change from previous years, according to past attendees, was in the number of women and children on hand for services.

Indeed, officials urged parents to get Mexican birth certificates for their American-born children so that parents, if deported, could keep their family together.

“If the parents are in an irregular situation but the kids are American citizens only, the U.S. won’t deport their citizens,” explained Gomez Garcia. “So it has been the case with parents of Central American origin or Mexican origin that one of the parents, mom or dad, gets deported and the kid — the two- or three-year-old kid being only an American citizen — he won’t be deported. So then the kid is taken care of by the child family authorities at the local level. So, yes, families can be separated.”

While the Obama administration made changes in 2014 so that undocumented workers with American-born children were offered some degree of protection to remain in the United States, it is unclear what will happen under a Trump administration.

As a candidate, Trump said that he wanted to end “birthright citizenship” for children born in the United States whose parents are here illegally. Citizenship has been granted to all persons born in the U.S. — regardless of their parents’ status — since passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

At this year’s mobile consulate, birth certificates were issued to five families.

‘TRABAJO’

Freddie and Gladis, who came to get a birth certificate for their daughter, were not untypical of the dairy farm workers at the event. The biggest difference may have been the couple’s 11-year-old son, Fausto, who took over as translator for his parents. Fausto, who attends school in Stowe, switched effortlessly — and flawlessly — back and forth between Spanish and English.

As with all workers interviewed there, Freddie said in his native language that he was in Vermont for one reason: trabajo. Work.

According to a 2013 study by UVM’s Daniel Baker, most Latino dairy workers in Vermont are male and around age 26. Half are married, but only 18 percent live with their spouses. Most want to go home after working a few years, and almost all (99 percent) send money home to family once a month, often up to 60 percent of earnings.

Asked about the importance of the Latino workforce to the state’s and Addison County’s dairies, dairy farmer Cheryl Connor did not mince words.

“If we didn’t have migrant workers, we wouldn’t have farms.” Connor and her husband, Jerry, milk around 140 cows on their organic dairy in Bridport.

According to Connor, Gomez Garcia and Mesa, federal immigration policy continues to put Vermont’s dairy farmers in a bind.

“There are no workers out there — American workers — who want to milk cows,” said Connor. “So we have a really difficult problem finding labor to milk the cows in the dairies.”

IMMIGRATION REFORM

Yet legal channels for migrant agricultural laborers remain limited to the federal H2A program, which allows for seasonal and temporary workers, such as the Jamaicans who come each year to pick Vermont’s apples, but doesn’t support the year-round labor needs of the state’s dairy industry. All three said that at present there is no federal immigration program that addresses the labor needs of Vermont’s dairy farms.

“If local people do not want to do the work, then what’s the problem? What’s the problem with inviting these people who are hard-working individuals and allowing them to be here for a year, two years, three years?” said Mesa. “This is why we need immigration reform. We just really need to put politics aside and party dogma aside and try to figure out what is wrong with our system.”

As much as dairy farmers need the labor, the laborers, for their part, want to be able to work legally.

Said Mesa, “The number one question I get is, ‘How can I get a work permit?’ I can guarantee you if I start asking around right now, ‘Do you want a work permit? Or do you want to stay in the country with permanent residency?’ they wouldn’t care about permanent residency. They just want a work visa. That’s it.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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