Migrant workers share their stories at Middlebury forum

MIDDLEBURY — Area residents this past Sunday got a rare glimpse into the lives of two Addison County migrant farm workers who shared their thoughts and experiences as part of a community forum at the Congregational Church of Middlebury.
The forum was the fourth in a Community Conversations series featuring discussion about social justice. The series is co-sponsored by the Congregational Church and Havurah, and is moderated by the Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson and Emily Joselson, a local attorney and congregant at Havurah. Also on the panel on Sunday were dairy farmer Phyllis Bowdish; Robert Zarate-Morales, a Middlebury College senior who’s part of the student-organized Juntos organization; Julia Doucet, outreach coordinator at Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic; and Susannah McCandless, a board member of the Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice.
“Given the real threat posed by the current national policies on immigration issues, we thought it was important to share this information now,” Joselson said as she introduced the panelists.
Joselson framed the discussion by providing background information on the state’s dairy industry and its labor force, including:
• The Vermont dairy industry is vital to the state’s economy, contributing $2.2 billion annually.
• Dairy helps to preserve the open, rural landscape prized by Vermonters and tourists alike.
• Dairy farms continue to struggle as costs go up and the price of milk stays low.
• Dairy relies on undocumented workers because farmers can no longer find Vermonters willing to do the work.
• There are an estimated 1,000-2,000 undocumented farm workers in Vermont, most of whom hail from Mexico.
• Many work 14-16 hour days, seven days a week, in all seasons.
• These workers pay close to $4 million annually in state and local taxes and about $11.64 billion nationally.
• Federal immigration policy provides no legal pathway for the year-round workers needed by the dairy industry.
The farmworkers, identified as “Antonio” and “Alejandra,” spoke through McCandless as interpreter.
Antonio said he has been working on Vermont dairy farms for about three years.
“I like Vermont. It’s very peaceful here,” said Antonio.
“After spending 11 years in Houston, Texas, there’s just no comparison,” he added, drawing some laughter around the hall.
Antonio described crossing into the United States to join family in Texas.
“For many people, there’s a lot of difficulty in the crossing,” he said. “I had to walk for eight days, but the main danger I faced was running into rattlesnakes in the scrub brush. So I was lucky.
“I crossed through scrubland and grassland,” he continued. “It’s other people’s lot to pass through the desert. I haven’t had that experience. I’m also lucky that I’m young and fit. Sometimes there are people who are older and have a hard time just physically, and you have to help them, or they might die. And sometimes even younger people who are in great shape have a hard time on the crossing.”
Work on the farm can be pretty hard, he said. They’re often up by 3 a.m. They typically work for four to six hours, take a lunch break, then work another four to six. On the farm where he works, cows are milked three times a day, — morning, midday and night.
“We’re here to provide a better life for our families,” he said.
Alejandra said she had been in the United States for about nine years; four in North Carolina and five in Addison County. “I wanted to let you know that if we’re here, it’s because of the bad policies and decisions and actions of our respective governments,” she said, framing her experience. “We’re here because we need to be. We need to work.”
Both workers said farmworkers in Vermont and nationally have felt more stress and tension under the current administration.
“I feel some fear when I need to go to the store, given the changes that have occurred,” said Antonio. “But so far it would appear that the situation has been more difficult, more aggravated in other parts of the country. In Vermont things are a bit more tranquil and so we’re able to be a bit more calm.”
Alejandra first worked on farms with the calves. She now takes care of her three children and cooks for other farmworkers.
She stressed the need for jobs that come with the decent wages and decent working conditions.
Other panelists reported the stress and fear are up for Vermont’s dairy workers and that workers are increasingly reluctant to go to the grocery store or to community events, which can lead to practical difficulties like getting low on food and to social isolation.
Both farmworkers said that overall, Vermonters have treated them well. But Alejandra admitted she had encountered some racism and added in Vermont, non-Caucasians can feel like they really stand out.
Asked what concerns recent changes in immigration policy caused for her family, Alejandra said, “It’s sometimes quite difficult. You might be feeling all this fear, but you have to just swallow it and tamp it down so that the face that you present to your children is a positive one because you don’t want them to grow up with that fear.
“And they do sometimes — they come home from school and they say, ‘Mama, am I Mexican? Am I American?’ I just want them to get out there and get involved with their classmates and be part of the community,” she added. “You work really hard for that but it is sometimes difficult to know how to support them. But you just put your best face on it and move forward.”
Other panel members provided their own perspectives on the current situation for migrant dairy workers. Doucet noted that the Open Door Clinic has been conducting a survey of worker stress that found while stress is up, workers are still willing to come in for medical care. Zarate-Morales said that Juntos, which provides tutoring in English among other supports for migrant workers, has seen a drop in participation this past year, fueled he believes by increasing fear of leaving the farm. McCandless emphasized that Migrant Justice works for solidarity not charity. She urged attendees to look more closely at its Milk with Dignity campaign and become a part of the movement to improve working conditions.
Phyllis Bowdish emphasized the close ties that can develop between farmers and workers. She noted her workers pay social security and income tax. She described how small- to medium dairies continue to struggle because milk prices remain at 1980s levels, while expenses continue to rise.
Bowdish noted the state’s reliance on its migrant work force.
“There’s just not local Vermonters willing to help,” she said.
Panelists said residents can help the cause of migrant workers by asking federal lawmakers to create a legal pathway for dairy workers. The workers also need transportation and tutoring in English, she added.
Asked if she’s had to temper her dreams due to the current administration, Alejandra said, “My dream hasn’t changed, but the struggle is harder.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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