ADDISON COUNTY — Some Vermont dairy farmers found themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Thursday when the agency rolled out its largest ever audit of employers in a crackdown on businesses shirking laws about employing foreign workers.
Reports Friday from the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition and other farmers indicated that perhaps only four or five farms in the state would be issued subpoenas for employment records, though initial reports about the audits placed that number much higher.
The Vermont Department of Agriculture on Thursday said ICE had targeted at least 86 farms for inspection, and the advocacy group Dairy Farmers Working Together reported between 86 and 100 farms were being issued subpoenas.
Vermont dairy farms employ as many as 2,000 foreign-born laborers — most from Mexico. Many Mexican dairy laborers have been prosecuted for entering the country without proper documentation or for overstaying their visas. Migrant worker advocates estimate as many as 500 migrant laborers work in Addison County.
“I’m sure that every dairy farmer in the state is probably wondering if they’re going to be next,” said Cornwall dairy farmer John Roberts, who said the lack of information about the audit was leaving many farms in limbo.
ICE is requiring businesses to turn over payroll records and I-9 forms within four days. The I-9 requires employers to review and record each worker’s identity and work eligibility documents.
The Vermont subpoenas were part of a 1,000-business sweep nationwide. According to ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton, the audit — which is the largest I-9 audit in the country’s history — targeted businesses in the country’s “critical infrastructure.”
“By that I mean sectors of business that are particularly important to our way of life,” said Morton during a Thursday afternoon teleconference. Such sectors included food and agriculture, as well as energy facilities, nuclear plants, water treatment and emergency services.
Morton said the audit was meant to “even the playing field for employers that play by the rules,” and illustrated ICE’s commitment both to enforcing federal employment law and protecting work opportunities for legal residents.
But Roberts, as well as Bridport dairy farmer Marie Audet, pointed out that many dairy farms in Vermont rely on migrant laborers to stay in operation. Roberts said that, in many cases, migrant laborers fill jobs that Americans aren’t willing to take, even during a down economy. At his own farm, Roberts said he’s employed many local workers over the years, but he’s gone through them “hand over fist.”
“People don’t want to work weekends,” he said. “They don’t want to work long hours.”
In dairy farming, he went on, that’s unavoidable. The animals’ wellbeing requires someone to be caring for the cows around the clock.
Audet and Roberts also both said that the immigration audits come at a disastrous time for many dairy farmers, when dairy producers are enduring some of the lowest milk prices they’ve ever received.
“This increased immigration enforcement activity threatens the viability of farm businesses,” said Audet. “We need a qualified pool of labor available year round … (This is) like getting kicked in the teeth when you’re already down.”
Morton said Thursday that every business served an audit during the sweep was selected because investigative leads indicated employers may have broken employment laws.
The audits also indicate the department’s shift in attention from employee raids to focusing on employers.
“If we find that you are knowingly violating the law, we’re going to investigate you and we’re going to prosecute you if we can,” Morton said.
But the audits, according to Roberts, seemed only to illustrate the disconnect on immigration policy between the Obama administration, Congress and bureaucrats in the field. He hoped the audit might act as motivation for lawmakers to consider immigration reform.
“If all the illegal immigrants disappeared overnight in this country, this country’s economy would come to a grinding halt,” Roberts said. “I just hope that maybe this will be a cattle prod to the administration and to Congress to look seriously at reforming this system.”