The reason Vermont’s dairy industry can get its product to market depends, in no small part, on the labor of an estimated 1,500 undocumented workers. The majority come from the southern region of Mexico, some come from Guatemala and other areas. Together they are a vital part of what makes a difficult life on the farm bearable.
They are also a big part of the reason Ben & Jerry’s can make its ice cream, or our cheese-makers their cheese, or our milk producers the milk that fills our cereal bowls.
We know this. We know they are here. We know how central they are to the dairy business. But it’s not a conversation we draw into the public realm. The reason is obvious: the workers are here illegally. The fear in the farming community is that the workers status is placed at risk the more attention they receive. Some of our farmers would not be in business if not for the hired hands from points south, which, to them, is a frightening prospect.
Of the estimated 1,500 workers in Vemront, the vast majority are employed on farms in Franklin and Addison Counties, which makes sense, since our two counties are home to the majority of the state’s dairy farms.
In Addison County, the workers have less fear of being deported because of the general attitude of law enforcement officers there. In Franklin County, the fear is greater: We’re on the border where immigration officials are far more prevalent.
Thus, there is concern here about legislation being debated that would grant undocumented migrant farm workers the right to get a driver’s license. Farmers nurse a genuine concern that allowing their migrant workers to have access to their own transportation would raise their profile, making them more susceptible to being caught and deported.
If they lose their help, getting their product to market becomes problematic.
Even the advocates for the migrant farm workers are cognizant of the possibility that granting the licenses could raise deportation rates.
But the arguments in favor of the proposal far outweight the arguments against.
Allowing someone to have mobility is not only essential — particularly in a rural state — but it’s also fundamental to a well-functioning work place.
It’s an issue of economic development in Vermont. We can’t get our product to market without these workers. The better they are treated, the better the operation.
The license is not something that could be used for federal identification purposes. The workers would also have to show proof of identity and be able to pass the necessary tests to get the license. The result would be safer roads and a much improved system of identification — which is why the proposal has the blessing of Vermont’s law enforcement community.
The proposal has invited critics to harp upon the obvious, which is that the workers are here illegally, thus nothing should be done to make their stay appear anything less than what it is.
That argument only has merit if the critics then demand a follow-up, which is to locate the workers and deport them. It’s a shallow argument to oppose granting them their driver’s licenses, but to allow them to remain on the farm, hidden in the shadows.
And no one is suggesting a mass deportation of our undocumented farm workers. That would be foolish, akin to shooting oneself in the foot.
Providing the way to grant a driver’s license to an undocumented worker is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Word would spread, making our farms more appealing to workers. The greater the pool of workers, the better the quality of the worker that would look to the farmer for employment.
It doesn’t solve the core issue, which is that the worker is still here illegally. But it adds to the argument that immigration reform in Washington is something that has to happen. Inaction is just another way of limiting our potential as a state and nation. Perhaps as states like Vermont push for legislation that improves the environment for undocumented workers, Congress will be spurred to do the same.
The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the Vermont Senate, and now is in the House. It’s a bill worthy of our support — for the sake of our farming economy as well as for the dignity of the workers who make it happen.
Emerson K. Lynn, St. Albans Messenger