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Gov. Phil Scott vows to protect foreign farm workers

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Posted on January 30, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



n CVFC Scott 0004.jpg
GOV. PHIL SCOTT, addressing the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition last Thursday at the Vergennes American Legion, said he would do what he could to protect the human rights of Mexican laborers working on Vermont dairy farms. Photo courtesy of UVM Extension

VERGENNES — U.S. immigration policy took the spotlight unexpectedly during a meeting of farmers last Thursday when Gov. Phil Scott made it clear that he would do whatever he could to protect Mexican farm laborers who may be under threat from President Trump.

Scott started his comments at the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition annual meeting at the American Legion hall in Vergennes by addressing the executive orders issued earlier in the week in Washington.

“I want to assure you that I completely understand the uncertainty this creates throughout Vermont and particularly for the agricultural sector ... supported by the hard work of our immigrant populations,” he said. “If we need to we will take action to protect the rights of all who live within our borders.

“As I’ve said, ‘I will protect the rights of all Vermonters and the human rights of all people.’ I’m going to follow through on that. We’ll protect those who are here and make sure that we can continue to prosper.”

Farmers at the meeting understood that to mean Scott would protect their immigrant laborers, many of whom are from Mexico and many of whom have overstayed their visas.

Earlier in the week, President Trump signed an executive order to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, set in motion expanded efforts to crack down on illegal workers and drafted an executive order to ban Syrian refugees and others from predominantly Muslim countries. The president of Mexico responded by canceling a scheduled visit to Washington.

These actions could spell trouble for Vermont’s dairy industry, which relies heavily on workers from Mexico, some of whom are here illegally. A top priority for Vermont’s agricultural workers from Mexico is to work legally in this county, immigration experts at last month’s annual visit to Middlebury by officials of the Mexican Consulate in Boston emphasized.

The roadblock, they said, has been federal immigration policy, which provides a single pathway for agricultural labor: the H2A visa program. The H2A program grants short-term work stays of three to six months, a structure that fits the needs of the state’s apple growers, for example, but does not fit the 365-days-a-year needs of the dairy industry.

Scott noted that his administration was carefully reviewing the executive orders to understand how they will effect Vermont, and the state attorney general is doing the same.

Tom Berry, lead advisor on agriculture and natural resource issues to Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., was among those at the CVFC meeting who noted the potential problems that Vermont dairy farmers could face due to President Trump’s policies. Berry acknowledged that while most of the night’s conversation had been about state and local issues, he encouraged farmers to stay in touch with their representatives in Washington.

“We’ve got stuff moving so fast right now it’s hard to keep up,” he said.

Berry described federal immigration policy as “moving about 100 miles in reverse” and observed that “we seem to be going from zero to a full-blown trade war with Mexico.” Berry also noted that the confirmation hearings of President Trump’s pick for U.S. Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, would be upcoming.

The concern over how Vermont’s farm labor could be affected by President Trump’s actions and stance on immigration were sounded again by Vermont Farm Bureau President Joe Tisbert.

Tisbert, owner of Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, said the Vermont Farm Bureau has been actively working with the larger national organization on the labor issue.

“That’s very important to you,” he said. “We’re kind of waiting to see, but we’re very concerned that President Trump’s actions could be widespread in a real hurry — and hopefully they’re not. But we’re a small state. We’re really watching. We’re taking notice. We’ll try to make sure that everyone here who has labor that needs to be protected, we’ll try to help them protect (that labor).”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected]

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