Diplomat offers hope to Mexican dairy farm labor

MIDDLEBURY — Microphone in hand, Consul General Emilio Rabasa addressed Mexican nationals at a mobile consulate event in Middlebury last Saturday, exhorting an assortment of Mexican dairy farm workers to know their rights — rights guaranteed by federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
Later that afternoon he stood in a Middlebury barn chatting with two local dairy workers about their lives both at home and here in Vermont.
Both workers, as it turns out, were from the state of Chiapas — near where Rabasa himself grew up.
“My grandfather had a farm in Chiapas. He raised dairy cattle and pigs. I used to go for vacations,” Rabasa said. “My best gift from my parents during the summer would be to send me with my grandpa to stay at the farm and work at the farm.”
Every year officials from the Mexican Consulate in Boston visit Middlebury to help Mexican citizens in Vermont in any way they can. At this year’s event at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, consulate officials said they served around 120 people and  issued 82 passports, 58 consular IDs and two Mexican birth certificates.
The Boston Consulate serves close to 70,000 Mexican nationals in New England. Officials estimate that close to 1,500 Mexicans are in Vermont, working mostly in agriculture.
This year’s Mexican Consulate Day brought together Hispanic workers critical to the local dairy industry and other parts of Addison County’s agricultural economy. It demonstrated the strength of the county’s support for migrant workers — offering food, clothing, English language tutoring, child care, transportation, legal and pastoral advice, and medical care as well as addressing other needs of a work force that is often isolated and hampered by a language barrier.
For Rabasa, the top diplomat at the Boston Consulate, a key function of his agency’s visits is to get close to the people.
“We want to first of all hear their concerns, hear their claims, their demands,” Rabasa said. “And also we want to let them know that they are not alone, that there is a consulate there for them that they can reach any moment.”
This has been something of a momentous year for migrant workers on Vermont’s dairy farms and in other parts of the agricultural sector.
On Oct. 3, Waterbury ice cream giant Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc. signed an agreement with the advocacy group Migrant Justice that commits the company to buy only from farms that meet certain wage, housing, work schedule and work condition standards. Farmers in return receive a premium. The agreement will be monitored by an outside party.
Against this landmark accomplishment, Rabasa also described an increase in tensions for Mexicans working in the United States under President Donald Trump. And on the very farm where he spoke to the two workers from Chiapas, Rabasa faced a different kind of barrier for workers from Mexico: a sparkling new barn built around a robotic milking facility. Once the construction on the barn is completed and the robotic milkers go into full swing, the farm will reduce its Hispanic workforce by half or more.
EMILIO RABASA, CONSUL General of the Mexican consulate in Boston, leads a workshop on legal rights as part of a mobile consulate visit to Middlebury last Saturday. Independent photo/Gaen Murphree
“There has been an increase of tension in the Mexican communities (under the Trump administration),” Rabasa said.
And it’s not only in the Mexican communities, he added. He hears of stories  from the 10 consulates from Latin American and the Caribbean he meets with in Boston.
“During our meetings and our talks we have perceived there is a growth of tension among the communities,” Rabasa said. “They are concerned about all that has been said of the executive orders, specifically about deportation of undocumented people. The children are perhaps the most affected ones because they fear that if they go to school when they come back Dad or Mom will not be there. So that creates a tension, a social tension.”
Rabasa said a substantial increase in deportations has been reported from states bordering Mexico. He also noted the volatility of federal immigration policy under Trump, saying: “That doesn’t mean things will keep as they are. They could change at any moment.”
In New England, Rabasa said the consulate has noticed more pressure on individuals providing advocacy and leadership, rather than a substantial increase in deportations.
Rabasa gave the example of Migrant Justice advocate Enrique Balcazar, who also spoke at Mexican Consulate Day.
“He’s here, Enrique. That’s a very symbolic case.”
Balcazar, a 24-year-old from Tabasco, Mexico, spent three years in Addison County as a dairy farm worker before becoming an advocate with Migrant Justice. He was appointed last January to Vermont Attorney General T. J. Donovan’s task force on immigration issues. In March 2017, Balcazar and other Migrant Justice leaders were picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers outside the organization’s offices. He was later release on $2,500 bail after an outpouring that included letters of support from Sen. Bernie Sanders and multiple state elected officials and religious leaders. Balcazar still faces deportation proceedings.
Rabasa said it was difficult to generalize about labor and living conditions on Vermont farms because they vary widely:
“There is a range that could go from very bad to very god. And there would be a good percentage of people in between.”
What’s needed, he said, is to ensure “that they all have minimum labor and housing conditions.”
Noting the critical importance of Mexican and other Hispanic workers to Vermont’s agricultural sector, Rabasa said he believed that the Ben and Jerry’s agreement would have a wider effect because it provides a model and sets a precedent.
He said that the day before the mobile consulate, he met with Vermont state officials to discuss labor issues, including ways to implement the Ben and Jerry’s standards more widely.
Rabasa said of the Ben and Jerry’s model: “It’s a huge transformation. And it would be, I am absolutely sure about this, a win-win situation for all because if you have happy workers in the sense that they have good conditions, they’ll be more productive. The owner will have better results and also the industry.”
Alongside the consulate’s processing of key documents like Mexican passports and Mexican birth certificates last Saturday were a number of workshops on key topics like public health, financial management and legal rights. Encouraging mobile consulate attendees to “know your rights” was Rabasa himself.
As he encouraged workers to contact the consulate if they ran into difficulty, Rabasa also enumerated that in the United States one has “the rights that are confirmed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, which are the right to keep silent in case of a detention, the right to call a lawyer, the right to call the consulate etc.”
Rabasa also encouraged the workers to be proud of their contribution to the state’s economy.
“Are we going through difficult times at the moment? Yes,” he said. “But it’s also true that thanks to your work, to your efforts, waking up every day at 5 a.m., sometimes working two shifts per day, sometimes working 12 hours nonstop, you are sustaining not only the dairy industry of Vermont, but one of the most important industries of the entire East Coast of the USA. Thanks to your work.
“I said this to the folks at Ben and Jerry’s yesterday, that Mexican labor goes into every single ice cream that gets eaten,” Rabasa continued. “And I say this moreover with great pride. I am, like many of you, from Chiapas. So I have to say that your effort, your work, this sweat of your brows, is worth something.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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