Blog Archive

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Foreigners on the Farm: Vt.'s Reliance on Immigrant Workers

Kristin Carlson - WCAX News
Burlington, Vermont
November 19, 2009

Mexican labor on Vermont farms has been a not-so-secret secret for several years. It's estimated there are more than 2,000 illegal workers here. Farmers say even in this economy they cannot find Vermonters willing to do farm work and the hours required-- and that they need illegal labor to survive. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has been working for years to get a program that would allow dairy workers to come in, stay for two or three years, and then go home so farmers won't have to break the law.

"I am disappointed in the timing of the situation-- just before Christmas and Thanksgiving," Leahy said.

Sen. Leahy's office was flooded with phone calls from farmers when federal authorities started showing up at Vermont farms Thursday.

"I think everyone has to understand we have a broken system it doesn't work well for anyone," Leahy said.

The Senator knows farmers are breaking the law and he has pushed for a legal visa program. One currently does not exist that allows year-round farm help. Leahy hopes to push through a rule change now to allow farmers to keep their workers.

Leahy: Legislation is going to take awhile. This is something we can do and they can do certainly to take care of the situation today. The last administration said no, this administration is considering it.

Reporter Kristin Carlson: Given what's happened today, Senator, are you still hopeful that the administration may consider a rule change?

Leahy: The fact that they didn't just go in and arrest people makes me hopeful.

Hundreds of Vermont dairy farmers rely on illegal labor to stay in business. Hispanic workers give the farmers documents that many farmers assume are not real.

Nancy Sabin is known as Mama Nancy to the farm workers. She works to make sure they are well treated. WCAX News talked to her last year as part of our special report Foreigners on the Farm. Sabin said pulling Mexican labor out of Vermont would cripple the dairy industry.

"In Addison and Bridport... you could take two Greyhound buses and fill them up with Mexicans and that's just one little area in Vermont, to say nothing of Swanton, St. Albans, and Enosburgh," she said.

After first going public last year, Sabin faced questions from federal agents. WCAX talked to her by phone Thursday and she reiterated what she said then.

"The dirty little secret needed to be told-- it's been kept hidden too terribly long," she said.

But farmers worry with that secret out, they could lose their livelihood.

Carlson: Do you think farmers will go to jail on this or are you working to avoid that?

Leahy: I'm working to avoid anyone going to jail on this-- farmer or farm worker-- let's find a way through it."

Senator Leahy is planning a judiciary committee meeting early next month with the Department of Homeland Security Secretary to talk about what happened Thursday and to push for an immediate rule change to allow farmers to keep their help.

Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vermont, is in Texas at a meeting of the Republican governors. But his office says Douglas called our Congressional delegation to learn more about these raids and he is working with them on a long-term solution to immigration issues.

During similar raids in July, ICE agents reviewed 85,000 worker eligibility documents and found about a quarter of them are suspect.