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Migrant worker advocates get support from Washington

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March 1, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

ADDISON COUNTY — Local advocates for migrant farm workers on Wednesday hailed a new legislative attempt by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. to legitimize the presence of undocumented laborers currently providing vital service to dairy farms throughout the state.

At issue is the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, And Security Act Of 2007, of which Leahy is a co-sponsor. The legislation would create a “blue card” program, through which currently undocumented people working in agriculture could secure temporary legal status, with the ultimate possibility of qualifying for a permanent legal status (a green card).

In addition, Leahy included a provision within the bill that would give undocumented dairy workers, goat herders or sheep herders a chance to legally work for an initial period of one year, with an opportunity to apply for up to three more years of temporary employment. The provision would also allow the dairy worker who has successfully worked for 36 months in temporary status to apply for permanent residency, subject to visa availability.

Undocumented farm workers are currently subject to deportation. They are not eligible for “seasonal” employment, as are foreign workers who participate in the annual apple harvest.

Leahy spoke of the legislation as the Senate Judiciary Committee — which he now chairs — took up the issue of immigration reform on Wednesday.

“We need to reduce illegal immigration by reforming our temporary worker programs to allow more access to the unfilled jobs and unmet needs in our economy,” Leahy said in his statement, a copy of which was provided to the Addison Independent. “Vermont dairy farmers should not have to choose between saving their family farms and obeying the law.”

Those comments were music to the ears of many local dairy farmers and advocates for undocumented migrant workers. There are an estimated 2,000 such workers in Vermont, including more that 500 in Addison County. Area farmers have credited these workers — largely from Mexico — for keeping dairies in business by taking jobs that Americans simply don’t want to take.

“I’m delighted Sen. Leahy is working on this legislation,” said Cheryl Mitchell, a member of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition (ACMWC).

She said Leahy’s strategy of permitting legal working status with the possibility of citizenship follows the blueprint of the country’s forefathers.

“It seems to be such a positive approach, compared to what we’ve seen the past couple of years,” Mitchell said. “It would be very nice to have this issue resolved, and in the tradition of our national heritage as a country of immigrants.”

Mitchell and fellow ACMWC member Cheryl Connor — a Bridport farmer — said they are pleased to see the federal government take on an issue that is difficult for individual states to address.

“(The federal level) is where it needs to start,” Connor said.

Still, the ACMWC isn’t putting all its eggs in the federal basket.

At the request of the ACMWC, Sens. Claire Ayer and Harold Giard of Addison County recently filed S.90, a bill that would create a public health program for farm and food service workers. The program would include preventive and prenatal health services and education.

The coalition is also promoting state legislation that would create state identification cards for migrant workers to allow them to work until the federal government revises its immigration and work permit laws.

“We were thinking Vermont could be a pilot program,” Connor said.

In the meantime, Connor is urging the administration of Gov. James Douglas to establish a “commission on migrant workers” to look at the current status of foreign labor in the state and its impact on local businesses. Other states — such as Massachusetts — have such a commission, Connor noted.

Connor and Mitchell will closely monitor legislation at the state and federal level.

“People have their fingers crossed that federal laws will address this issue in a thoughtful way,” Mitchell said.

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