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Views on migrant workers discussed

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February 15, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Migrant workers in Addison County remain scared to leave the farms on which they work lest they be stopped and deported for a minor infraction in what has become the strictest state in the Northeast for rounding up illegal aliens, local advocates said on Tuesday.

A panel of local educators, farmers, Mexican government officials and a former U.S. Border Patrol agent shared these and other views on the issue of migrant farm workers at a special forum hosted on Tuesday by the Middlebury Congregational Church.

The standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 featured farmers, human services providers, lawyers and students, but was largely devoid of the people who were the focus of the gathering — migrant workers, who clearly wanted to avoid scrutiny in order to keep their jobs.

An estimated 500 such workers — primarily Mexican nationals — currently provide vital labor to many Addison County dairy farms. Trouble is, neither state nor federal laws currently provide for long-term agricultural employment for migrant workers, many of whom nonetheless risk their lives to slip into Vermont to work at jobs that pay $7 to $8 per hour — a wage they could not dream of making in their native Mexico.

“Regardless of your position on immigration, the fact is that the Mexicans are here and they are working,” said panelist Rodrigo Marquez, deputy consul of the Mexican Consulate in Boston. “If you ask any of the Mexicans here how they would like to come to work in the United States, 100 percent would say, ‘If there was a legal way, I would do it.’”

Marquez expressed frustration over current federal laws that do not permit long-term agricultural employment for Mexican laborers who have every intention of returning to their homeland.

“Most of the visas are for temporary workers or seasonal work,” Marquez said. “As most of you know, dairy farming is not seasonal.”

He added Mexican laborers in Vermont are taking jobs that most Americans don’t want to take.

“If the Mexicans were not helping the farmers, the farmers wouldn’t be buying seeds for garden, food for the cows, (equipment) for the farm,” Marquez said. “Those migrants are helping the community.”

He acknowledged that many Mexican laborers are in the U.S. without proper documentation, but voiced concern over the extent to which local authorities — particularly those in Vermont — have been pursuing deportations for people caught for minor infractions.

HIGH DEPORTATION RATE

Marquez cited consulate records showing that 123 Mexicans were deported from Vermont in 2006, compared to 33 from Massachusetts; 60 from Maine; 30 from Rhode Island; and 21 from New Hampshire.

Census figures for 2005 show there were 1,096 Mexican nationals living in Vermont; 7,813 in Rhode Island; 29,939 in Massachusetts; 3,785 in Maine; and 6,510 in New Hampshire.

“Vermont, compared to other states, is a tough state,” Marquez said. “Most of the Mexicans who, for some reason, happen to be in contact with police, they eventually end up being deported.”

Marquez advocated for a long-term employment program for migrant workers that could be backed up with local identification cards indicating the employees’ names and their employers.

“The most important question for people in Vermont to decide is how you are going to cope with these changes,” Marquez said. “Either you are going to try to be an integrated state that accepts differences and welcomes new blood, which you need, because it’s a state that is getting older and people are leaving — or you want to continue closing your eyes and say, ‘We don’t have a problem.’”

Marisela Ramos, a visiting instructor in history at Middlebury College, provided a glimpse into what has been a changing trend in immigration patterns from Mexico.

Ramos noted an increasing number of Mexicans have flocked to the United States since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed by the U.S., Mexico and Canada. That agreement paved the way for enhanced trade opportunities between the two countries.

But the treaty has also created some economic imbalances in Mexico, according to Ramos.

“Since NAFTA, the Mexican agricultural labor force has dropped by approximately 2 million people,” Ramos said. “According to reports from the Mexican government and the World Bank, poverty has increased in Mexico and income distribution has become more lopsided.”

As a result, some Mexicans have looked to the north for higher wages. She pointed to statistics showing there were 2 million unauthorized Mexican nationals living in the U.S. in 1990. By 2000, that number had more than doubled to roughly 4.5 million, she said.

Ramos noted the profile of the typical Mexican migrant worker has changed.

Forty or 50 years ago, many Mexican nationals sought to relocate to the U.S. permanently, in hopes of a better life.

Currently, a large percentage of Mexicans coming into the United States are hailing from more southern regions of Mexico, seeking long-term, temporary stays to earn better wages for their families back home.

“In general … these people are no longer coming because they want a better life, because they want a better education,” Ramos said. “These are now the people that are coming because they have no food, because they don’t know when they are going to be able to feed their children.”

Chris Urban has spent the past few years going from farm to farm in Addison County, teaching English to migrant workers. He related some harrowing stories given to him by some of his students who were robbed, injured and witnessed death during the crossings into the U.S.

“I view them as migrant Mexican workers, as aliens, as students, but more importantly, they are my friends,” Urban said. “Just as I teach them English, they also teach me a lot. Most importantly, they’ve taught me what it means to be human — to have few possessions and little money, yet they are so generous and give so much and are so grateful.

“These people contribute tremendously,” Urban added. “They contribute a great deal to our society and I wish they could feel safe in the working landscape they sustain.”

He lamented the fact that he had to serve as a middleman to relate their stories.

“Someday, I hope I don’t have to be speaking on their behalf,” Urban said. “I wish they could be here today.”

David Prehoda, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent, retired in 1998. He and his family run a farm outside of Bristol. He is also the author of the book “West of the Moon,” which recounts some of his experiences patrolling the U.S./Mexican border near San Antonio and El Paso, Texas.

Prehoda spoke of the challenges of ensuring a secure border while recognizing the needs of Mexican workers and their American employers.

“Undocumented Mexican workers in our country serve as the only credible foreign subsidy program that this nation truly has between the United States and the Mexican government,” Prehoda said.

MEXICANS VITAL IN COUNTY

Migrant workers continue to be a vital asset to Addison County farms, according to Cheryl Connor, a longtime Bridport dairy farmer and medical professional. Connor has helped organize a monthly Catholic mass and dinner for some of the county’s farm workers.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful they are,” Connor said, noting migrant workers helped keep her farm running around three years ago when her husband sustained a serious injury to his hand. “They want the hours and they want to work. They are working for a lifetime of income for their families.”

Connor lamented the life of isolation migrant workers currently lead in the county. (See related story, Page 11B.)

“They are afraid to go to the grocery store,” Connor said.

Addison County Farm Bureau member Tim Buskey echoed Connor’s sentiments.

“Migrant workers here are very loved by farmers,” Buskey said, adding “We can’t find American workers to work on farms.”

Michael Shannon of West Addison said the need for migrant workers extends beyond the dairy farms. He said 40 percent of the peppers on his farm went unpicked last year due to a lack of available laborers.

“If we don’t establish some kind of program, there are other businesses that will suffer,” Shannon said.

Local lawmakers are currently crafting bills that call for basic health services (such an inoculations) and long-term employment permission for migrant workers.

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