MIDDLEBURY — A Mexican immigrant who wanted to go by the name “J” traveled three hours from the Northeast Kingdom to Middlebury to meet with representatives of the Mexican Consulate in Boston. He was one of at least 100 Mexican workers who met with consulate representatives and received other services at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Middlebury a week ago Saturday.
“J” was in good spirits, joking about the World Cup and enjoying meatballs, which he’d never had before. He’s been in the United States illegally for about two years, and this was one of the few times he had left the family-owned dairy farm he works on in northern Vermont.
He usually works eight-hour days seven days a week, and since he lives and works on a farm near where immigration officials patrol the Canadian border, he almost never leaves the farm. His boss, the farm owner, buys him groceries, and “J” asks his boss to wire most of the money he earns back to his family in Mexico.
“J” went to the Middlebury Church to obtain a passport from Mexican consulate representatives. He has a wife in Mexico, and having a passport will make it a lot easier for him to one day move back to his hometown in Chiapas.
Representatives from the Boston Consulate come to Vermont around three times a year to issue passports and “matricula” identification cards, which provide proof of residency in the United States and can be used at some U.S. banks to open accounts.
On that Saturday, the consulate issued 66 passports and 20 matricula cards. Immigrants seek out passports if they have plans to move back to Mexico; if they are caught traveling in the United States without a passport, they can be deported and may not be able to return to the United States legally for at least 10 years.
The consulate office often chooses to have their Vermont visits in Middlebury because the town is centrally located, there is a large Mexican immigrant population here, and because the county has an extensive support system for immigrant workers.
The Addison County Farm Workers’ coalition, a volunteer group founded in 2004, has largely been responsible for coordinating efforts between various organizations throughout the county around immigrant issues. Among other things, the coalition has helped immigrants receive medical care and organized Spanish masses at area churches.
The coalition brought in a wide variety of groups to the consulate visit that Saturday. The Middlebury open door clinic offered medical care; the Vermont Law School provided legal advice; WomenSafe was on hand to provide domestic abuse counseling; and various volunteers helped transport the immigrant workers and provided them with help filling out forms.
Cheryl Connor, a Bridport resident who co-founded the Farm Workers’ Coalition, explained that although immigrant workers on dairy farms often live very isolated lives, undocumented immigrants in other parts of the country seek out dairy jobs in Vermont because of several advantages.
“If you work on a dairy farm, you can work seven days a week, and you can be assured that you will be paid,” she said. “You will also be provided with your housing, your heating and in some cases, your satellite TV. (Immigrant workers) would have to worry about all of that in South Carolina, for example. So these are better, more stable jobs for them.”
Many Vermont dairy farms have sought immigrant labor for the past decade or more as a result of low dairy prices but also because the work force is dependable, hardworking and available. A shortage of local farm workers has been a serious problem for the industry for years.
Connor believes Vermont Farm Bureau estimates of 400 to 500 immigrant workers in Addison County are accurate. Other estimates cited by Connor say there could be as many as 2,000 undocumented workers on dairy farms throughout the state.
At the Saturday meeting in Middlebury, Mexican nationals came from a wide geographical area. “They come from far and wide,” said Connor. “We even have some from Saratoga, N.Y.”
Middlebury is also a good location for the consulate visits because of the town’s policy on immigration law enforcement. The police department does not question people about their immigration status unless they are suspected of having committed a crime.
At an April immigration policy conference at Middlebury College organized by the Farm Workers’ Coalition and other groups, Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley explained that it would be discriminatory to request to see proof of residency from law-abiding people.
“For us to start asking people for their papers or their identification when they’ve not committed any kind of crime is contrary to the Constitution,” Hanley told an Independent reporter. “That’s our policy.”
Nevertheless, as Arthur Edershiem, an attorney offering legal advice at the consulate visit explained, the various law enforcement agencies operating in Vermont have different policies toward immigration, and undocumented workers often live in fear of deportation.
“Folks are afraid to leave their farms,” he said. “Maybe they’ll go to the health clinic or church services if they have a ride, but they’re understandably worried about going out.”
Edershiem attended the consulate visit as part of a poverty law clinic run through Vermont Law School. With the help of a Spanish-speaking law student, he offered legal advice to immigrant workers. He has also counseled employers concerned about the legal repercussions of hiring immigrant workers.
To his knowledge, no employers in Vermont or the surrounding states have paid significant penalties for hiring illegal workers.
“For farmers to suffer serious penalties, which could include five years in jail and fines of tens of thousands of dollars, you would have to have very much knowingly hired illegal folks … or taken steps to prevent immigration from coming in for compliance,” he said.
Edershiem explained that it would be discriminatory to press workers on their immigration statuses simply because of their ethnicity, especially if they provide some documentation, as many Mexican immigrant workers do.
Cheryl Connor, who is a nurse, explained that interactions between farm owners and immigrant workers usually go smoothly. There are, however, occasional misunderstandings, especially over how dependent workers can be on their employers for things like groceries.
“By in large, I would say that most dairy farmers treat the workers like they’re family,” she said. “(Farmers) are happy to have them. Their work ethic is really above anything we would expect, because many times what they will make here in a year or two years will last them a lifetime in Mexico.”
SENDING WAGES HOME
A Mexican immigrant who lives and works in Addison, and wanted to go by the name “E,” gets paid around $380 a week — which can include 10 hour days, seven days a week — and sends about $250 home per week.
Before coming here a little over a year ago, he said he worked in Rochester, N.Y. for a few months, and like many immigrant workers in Vermont, “E” heard about his current job in Addison through a family member who spoke to him using a phone card.
“E,” who is 25, came to the consulate visit last week to obtain a Mexican passport. In a few months, he plans to return to Mexico to build a house with his wife in Tabasco, Mexico.
It is not uncommon for Mexican workers throughout the United States to send a good deal of the money they earn home to Mexico — the World Bank estimated that in 2005, workers sent over $19 billion to Mexico in remittances.
Despite the money this brings into the Mexican economy, Amparo Anguiano, the Deputy Consul of the Mexican Consulate in Boston, expressed concern about the effects workers who have followed “E’s” path have had on the Mexican economy.
“When people leave, it’s a damage to the (Mexican) economy,” she said, adding that it’s also a cultural loss. “These are brave entrepreneurs we’re losing.”
Anguiano also discussed new efforts by the Mexican government to take fuller advantage of the money immigrant workers send back to Mexico. In a relatively new program, tres por uno (“three by one”), the Mexican federal government, provinces and municipalities all match funds that workers in the United States donate to public works projects in their hometowns.
In Middlebury though, “E” explained that he is primarily focused on making enough money in Addison to head back to Mexico and build a home. But he has been very grateful for the opportunities Vermont has offered him.
He was especially thrilled last week during a heat wave when his boss gave him some rare time off, and he got to experience his first Vermont swimming hole.
“Vermont es muy bonito,” he said, adding that the water was refreshing.
A Spanish translation of this article is now available on our blog.
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected]