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Migrant workers in Addison County work under cloud of mystery

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Ana Solis desperately wants you to know who she is.

But she can’t tell you.

As one of the estimated 500 migrant workers now toiling on farms throughout Addison County, Ana Solis (not her real name) must be content to work in the shadows of a milk stall, or risk running afoul of loosely-interpreted federal immigration laws that would require her and her family’s deportation to Mexico.

“I like this country and the economic opportunity available here,” said Solis, who with her husband has worked on the same Addison County farm for the past three years.

“But there are times when we feel like prisoners,” she added, as she bounced her American-born, 16-month-old daughter on her knee. “We have the right to work, and nothing more.”

Solis and her family are typical of a largely Hispanic, clandestine workforce that is critical to Vermont’s agricultural economy. But federal laws do not currently recognize long-term work assignments for migrant laborers.

These workers risk deportation every day to work at tough, monotonous farm jobs that pay about $7 per hour and that most Vermonters simply don’t want to perform these days. The workers’ plight — and that of the farmers for whom they are toiling — has given rise to a growing debate in Vermont about whether state and federal lawmakers should reverse course and make it easier, rather than more difficult in this post-9/11 era, for foreign laborers to legally fill agricultural jobs in the Green Mountain State.

“Our farmers didn’t turn to illegals as a first choice; it was a last choice,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Kerr. “They’ve been forced into it by economic necessity.

“On this issue, the feds are acting as though agriculture was not important,” Kerr added. “The only thing wrong with this picture, in my mind, is Congress and its unwillingness to deal with reality.”

That reality, according to Kerr, includes approximately 2,500 migrant workers who are employed on farms throughout Vermont. Together, those workers have a hand in processing more than 50 percent of the milk generated in the state each year, according to a 2005 Vermont Agency of Agriculture study.

“Now, any dairy farm that is of good size has Hispanic labor,” said Peter Conlon of Agri-Placement Services, a company that assists farmers with their Hispanic workforces. “I firmly believe the (Vermont) dairy industry was at a point of crisis, due to the labor shortage here.”

Current federal law requires farmers to view and record their migrant workers’ green cards and I-9 forms, according to Kerr.

And that’s where the employers’ obligation ends, he said.

“The law states clearly that it’s not the employer’s responsibility to confirm the legitimacy of the (migrant worker’s) documents,” Kerr said.

As a result, some of the documentation invariably proves to be fake. Still, most farmers dutifully send their workers’ information in to the appropriate federal authorities, which deduct the necessary taxes from the workers’ paychecks. Those deductions include Social Security taxes, benefits the migrant workers will never collect. And with millions of illegal workers in the nation, those uncollected Social Security taxes add up to a tidy sum, giving federal authorities some extra incentive to look the other way, according to some migrant worker advocates.

“It’s one of the country’s dirty little secrets,” said one local advocate, who wished to remain anonymous.

Anonymity is the name of the game for farmers and migrant workers who want to maintain what has been a win-win employment arrangement. The farmers get an affordable stream of hard working laborers to do vital chores Americans don’t want to do, while the migrant workers send home wages that are more than double what they could be earning for comparable work in their native lands.

“It’s worked out very well,” said one Addison County farmer who owns a 450-cow herd that has been tended by three Hispanic migrant workers since 2001.

“You just don’t find the local labor force to be as hungry for work,” added the farmer, who wants to remain anonymous.

The farmer said his foreign workers are pleased to do 10.5-hour shifts in the milking parlor. It’s monotonous work that doesn’t attract locals, particularly in an era when the unemployment rate in Addison County is hovering in the 4-percent range.

“To find someone to run a marathon shift is very difficult,” the farmer said. “But these (migrant workers) do it, and they refuse to take a break.

“I don’t see a time when we could be independent of this labor force, honestly.”

He said his workers usually go back to their native countries after around 18 months — unless their exit is hastened by police and/or officials from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Kerr estimates a foreign farm worker is deported from Vermont about once every six months.

“Statistically, the Vermont State Police have bent over backwards… in not hunting these people down,” Kerr said.

Yet farmers spoke of cases in which migrant workers have been flagged by authorities while driving in cars with bad plates; after accidentally placing 911 calls; and even while purchasing a bus ticket to return home. Migrant workers have spent upwards of a month in INS holding facilities in Boston waiting for deportation, according to Susannah McCandless, a Clark University graduate student who has been studying the migrant worker phenomenon in Addison County.

SOME MIGRANT STATISTICS

McCandless was part of a team that in September unveiled the “Addison County Health Needs Assessment” report, which chronicles the needs of local migrant workers.

Team members interviewed 31 foreign workers on 18 farms in the county. Some of their findings indicated:

• 55 percent (17) of the respondents said they worked more than 10 hours a day, while only 52 percent (16) said they took a day off each week.

• Farmers provide lodging to their workers and give them rides to the store around every week or two.

• Most migrant workers feel culturally and legally isolated. Many are reluctant to leave the confines of their mobile homes, for fear of being discovered and deported. That means the majority of foreign workers go without medical care, the study found.

“They … have had a variety of colds, flus and work-related aches throughout their bodies, but none were important enough to talk with their patrón,their boss,” The study reads. “In more than four cases, workers who did not have a day off shared with us their desire for one, at least every once in a while, they would say humbly, ‘but I don’t know how to ask.’”

• Only 50 percent of the workers interviewed had received immunizations in their youth, while even fewer, 13 people, had received a tetanus booster as an adult. A little more than 50 percent of the workers (17) had ever received dental care during the previous one to 20 years.

McCandless hopes the study sheds light on the difficulties facing migrant workers. She looks forward to a time when the workers feel more free to move about and become part of the community.

“Our goal is to end this climate of fear,” McCandless said.

THE PERSON BEHIND THE NUMBERS

Ana Solis believes the fear will dissipate with greater understanding between foreign laborers and their American hosts. First and foremost, she wants people to know that she and other migrant workers are not terrorists.

“Someone may find me a threat, but I am not,” Solis said. “I am hard working, and I pay my own way. I would not harm anyone.”

Solis and her family have worked at the same Addison County farm for three years. She estimates her family is earning 80 percent more than what they could be pulling down in their native Mexico.

She wants to return some day, but for now, “to imagine myself back in Mexico is to imagine a life of even harder work and difficult economic straits,” Solis said. “It’s easier, in terms of my vision for the future, if we stay here.”

She looks forward to brighter days, but for now, Solis, her husband and her daughter will stay close to the farm on which they work.

“We go out for only the most necessary things,” Solis said. “If I go into a public place, I feel like I’m under surveillance.”

Like Solis, Raul (not his real name) rarely leaves the Addison County farm at which he arrived a few months ago. He works six-and-a-half days per week, and sends money home to his wife and their two children in Mexico.

“It’s hard, especially if one of them gets sick, I can’t do anything except telephone them,” Raul said.

He misses his family, Mexican culture and the freedom to shop for what he wants at stores.

“We can’t buy beer or cigars, because people are always asking for identification cards, and we are nervous about showing them,” Raul said.

That said, state officials want Congress to make changes to the nation’s immigration laws to recognize Vermont’s need for year-round migrant workers for its farms.

“I believe the answer is immigration reform at the national level — perhaps a guest worker program that the president and others have suggested — something to make it possible for foreign citizens to take jobs that local workers are not interested in,” said Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican.

Douglas said he would support a year-round extension of what is now a seasonal workers’ program that allows Jamaicans and other foreign nationals to help out with the county’s apple harvest each fall.

Kerr has proposed a “state identification card” that would include the name and picture of the migrant worker, along with the address, phone number and name of his or her employer.

But recent efforts to loosen restrictions on year-round migrant workers have thus far stalled in Congress.

FEDERAL LEGISLATION

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lobbied successfully last March for legislation that would allow foreign dairy laborers to work on visas for up to three years, with an opportunity to adjust to permanent residence. The legislation, passed by the Senate as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, would also direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of State to produce a “North American travel card,” only good for use between the United States and Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.

House leaders, however, declined to go to a conference committee to reconcile the separate House and Senate immigration reform proposals. That means both initiatives will die by the end of the year unless a compromise bill is passed, according to Leahy spokesman David Carle.

“Dairy farmers are the backbone of Vermont’s economy,” Leahy said. “Dairy farming is hard, nonstop work and immigrant workers contribute to our industry’s vitality.

“The current situation is a hardship and a hassle to everyone, and we need practical solutions,” Leahy added. “House leaders, for now, have blocked any further progress on comprehensive immigration reform, but many of us on both sides of the aisle in Congress are ready to join together next year to try once again to fix this problem.”

FARM WORKER HEALTH

Meanwhile, members of the Addison County Migrant Workers’ Coalition (ACMWC) are working with local lawmakers on drafts of bills that would:

Direct the Vermont Department of Public Health and the Medicaid Division of the Agency of Human Services to establish a preventive health care program for all workers in the agricultural sector (citizen and non-citizen alike) that would guarantee such things as access to preventive health care; an immunization program and immunization registry for all farm workers; and health education to farm workers in their own native language.

• A guest worker program that would “help to stabilize the agricultural sector of Vermont and end the climate of fear currently operating in our communities.” That program would extend migrant farm workers “agricultural ID cards,” entitling them to five-year visas, eligible for renewal. The program would also open the door for workers to apply for permission to bring members of their immediate family to join them after six months.

Proponents of the bills said funding for the health care services could come from a portion of the FICA taxes now deducted from migrant workers’ paychecks.

“Most of these workers are paying taxes, and this is health protection,” said Cheryl Mitchell, former deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services and a member of the ACMWC. “Most doctors are now stepping up to the plate and providing free care. It seems only fair to hospitals and physicians that if they are providing that care, they ought to be reimbursed for it.”

Ana Solis and other migrant workers will be watching, from afar, legislative attempts to improve their lots in life.

“Personally, I think for all of us, that is what we are hoping for — a permit to be legal; to be free to participate in society and to come and go to our own country,” Solis said. “We would like the opportunity to develop ourselves as we would want, to have the same capacity as other human beings.”

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