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Crackdown on migrant workers worries local farmers

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August 16, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Local farmers this week sharply criticized new federal rules calling for large fines to be levied on employers who do not fire foreign workers who present them with inaccurate Social Security information.

Farmers argued that the new rules — unveiled late last week by the Department of Homeland Security — will further stem a vital source of foreign labor that has kept many Vermont dairy operations afloat. An estimated 2,500 migrant laborers, many of them with dubious work and immigration credentials, currently toil in anonymity on dairy farms throughout the state, performing jobs that Vermonters increasingly don’t want to take.

Approximately 500 migrant laborers, hailing primarily from Mexico, are believed to be working on farms in Addison County.

“It was just starting to get better, and now this happens,” said Cheryl Connor, a Bridport farmer and member of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition (ACMWC), a group that advocates for the needs of guest farm laborers.

“(Farmers) will now be more apprehensive about hiring,” she added. “I’m not sure how many workers we are going to have in this area.”

Federal law has required farmers to view and record their migrant workers’ green cards, Social Security numbers and I-9 immigration forms. Still, some migrant workers are willing to take the risk of entering the United States illegally to work at steady jobs paying $7 to $8 per hour, a wage they could not hope to make in their native lands.

Employers have not been under the gun to check the veracity of the migrant workers’ paperwork, which sometimes proves to be fake. Under the new rules, federal authorities will send “no-match” letters to employers with workers who have presented Social Security numbers that do not match up with government records. Employers will be given 90 days to reconcile the records discrepancies — or show good faith in doing so. Employers must fire migrant workers who have unreconciled records at the end of the 90-day period or face fines, according to the new rules. As an added enforcement “stick,” the new rules call for a 25-percent hike in fines for employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. Those fines are currently $2,200 on first offense and $10,000 for each infraction thereafter.

Area farmers said the prospect of investigations and fines will undoubtedly force some operations to take a pass on migrant laborers and therefore put them in the age-old bind of scouring the region for American workers who have not been as willing to work long hours for basic wages. Other farmers who have grown dependant on migrant workers will likely pay their help under the table — or keep them more cloistered on farms than they already are — in order to maintain what has been a vital workforce.

“A lot of people will get groceries for them and not take them off the farm,” said Connor, who said she heard comments on the new migrant worker rules from several farmers at Addison County Fair & Field Days last week.

Tim Buskey, administrator for the Vermont Farm Bureau, said he has not yet heard a lot of comments on the new federal rules, which are likely to take effect this fall.

“I’m not sure it will change the way people do their hiring,” Buskey said, “but I think they will be a little more careful in checking documents.”

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee, reached at a meeting in Quebec on Tuesday, said he was aware of the new rules and is committed to helping farmers understand them and comply with them.

He acknowledged the federal government’s new emphasis on enforcement and fines has been disconcerting to the state’s farmers who employ migrant workers.

“We will do our best to work through this with the industry,” Allbee said.

It was just last week that Allbee and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., visited a Bridport farm to discuss the issue of migrant labor.

“It was clear that this farm had tried to hire local help, but had to rely on guest workers because” Vermonters didn’t want the jobs, Allbee said.

Ultimately, Allbee said Vermont farmers and guest workers could see relief through pending legislation called the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits And Security Act Of 2007, which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairs that committee.

The legislation, also known as the “AgJOBS Bill,” would create a two-step “legalization” or “earned adjustment” program under which undocumented farm workers who have been performing work in agriculture in the U.S. could gain temporaryresident immigration status and then earn permanentresident immigration status upon completing additional employment in U.S. agriculture during the ensuing three to five years. It would also expand the nation’s H-2A agricultural guest worker program, which allows agricultural employers to employ foreign workers on temporary, nonimmigrant visas, based on claims of labor shortages.

“We need to address this issue not only in Vermont, but throughout the country,” Allbee said.

Erica Chabot, spokeswoman for Sen. Leahy, said Vermont’s senior senator remains committed to the AgJOBS bill. The legislation failed earlier this year as part of a comprehensive immigration package, but members of Vermont’s congressional delegation vowed to resurrect the bill.

“Senator Leahy is an original co-sponsor of the (AgJOBS bill), authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Ca.) and Sen. Larry Craig, (R-Idaho),” Chabot said. “This bill, which has wide bipartisan support, would provide tremendous benefits to America’s farmers and would be a good starting point for the broader reform of federal immigration law. Ultimately, it is critical that the legislative and executive branches work together to reform existing immigration law so that no employer is put in the position of having to choose between obeying the law and maintaining their livelihood. If congress and the president work together, we can create an immigration system for the future that strengthens border security, treats all individuals with dignity, protects American workers and keeps our national economy healthy.”

WAIT AND SEE

Chabot said Leahy will carefully watch to see how Homeland Security’s new rules will affect employers and their guest workers.

“The new Department of Homeland Security rules will inevitably impact businesses and employers, many of whom have been acting in good faith and are complying with existing law,” Chabot said. “These actions from the Department of Homeland Security further highlight the critical need for federal legislation to ensure that employers have the workers they need to keep their businesses vital, while at the same time preserving opportunities and livable wages for domestic workers.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is also a fan of the AgJOBS bill.

He was candid in his criticism of the new Homeland Security rules.

“This new Bush administrative policy is illustrative of a failure of leadership to balance the necessity of enforcement with the real-world needs of our farmers,” Welch said. “With all of the burdens faced by our family farmers, they shouldn’t have to act as enforcers of what is a failed immigration policy. This problem highlights the urgent need to address farm-labor issues with a sensible Ag-jobs program Vermont farmers so badly need.”

Susannah McCandless, a ACMWC member and scholar who has been studying the migrant worker phenomenon in Addison County, said federal legislation should recognize that the large majority of people who enter the country are doing so out of economic necessity, to take jobs that might otherwise go unfilled.

“I’m concerned that we increasingly conflate or confuse the motives of … hard working folks who intend to mind their own business with those few individuals trying to get into our country to cause people living in the United States harm,” McCandless said.

EYES ON IMMIGRANTS

She agreed with others who believe the new Homeland Security rules will simply take migrant workers further out of the mainstream of the society in which they are working.

“Vermont dairy farmers have been clear that they have already been pushed to the margin economically, by a host of factors — low prices, high costs,” McCandless said. “I believe many dairy farmers feel an absolute need to contract with migrant laborers who are available, who desire to work long hours, and who are willing to do so at lower wages than many U.S. workers. I don’t know that that will change, with the potential for new enforcement.

“I am concerned that working conditions for farm workers and for farmers — and their ability to provide good working conditions for their laborers — will be negatively impacted by laws that cause a need for more secrecy and more hiding and less connections between farm workers and services in the community.”

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