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Vermont Fights for Immigrant Dairy Workers

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Vermont Fights for Immigrant Dairy Workers

Business

Vermont Fights for Immigrant Dairy Workers

Vermont Fights for Immigrant Dairy Workers

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Thousands of the farm workers on Vermont's dairy farms are there illegally. Dairy farm workers don't qualify for a guest-worker program that allows foreigners to enter the U.S. for seasonal jobs. Farmers and state politicians say that Washington's policy hurts the state's dairy industry. From Vermont Public Radio, John Dillon reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And right now let's come back the United States where immigrants are changing Vermont. About 2,000 Mexicans work on that state's dairy farms. State officials estimate about three quarters of those farm workers are there illegally, and, of course, they live in constant fear of deportation.

They do have one ally, in the state's Republican governor, who says federal immigration policy hurts the state's dairy industry. From Vermont public radio, John Dillon reports.

JOHN DILLON: Addison County in western Vermont has some of the biggest and most prosperous dairy farms in the state. It's the Vermont tourists come to see - a pristine landscape of broad green fields and forested mountains.

The worker tending these cows is from Chiapas, Mexico. He's been here three years, and his brown skin makes him stand out in one of the Whitest states in the country. So like most Mexicans here, he lives an almost underground existence.

Unidentified Man (Through translator): Yeah, we always think twice about going out because we worry about running into immigration officials. If we're caught, they can send us back to Mexico.

DILLON: It's because of that fear that he farm workers didn't want to be identified. They're quickly deported if they're caught without their proper documentation.

The legal burden on farmers is different. An employer must supply the government with an I-9 form that lists several kinds of identification, but the government does not require the farmer to prove that those documents - usually a Social Security card or green card - are genuine.

Because of the year-round nature of the job, the dairy workers don't qualify for a guest worker program that allows foreigners to come here for seasonal jobs, like working in apple orchards. On a dairy farm, there's not time clock, just a dawn to dark schedule.

The Mexicans get seven or eight dollars an hour, plus housing and utilities. The farmers get steady, reliable labor.

Farmer Charlie White of Corinth, Vermont, says it's been a tough year. Milk prices are low, fuel prices are high, weeks of rain damaged crops.

CHARLIE WHITE: We have a lot of problems now, but we'd be really in bad shape if you took all the - deported all the people that are here working.

DILLON: And White knows firsthand what it's like when a worker is taken away. In June, federal immigration agents arrested and then deported the young Mexican couple who had worked on the White farm for 18 months.

BRUCE CHADBOURNE: As it turns out, both the husband and wife had been deported on two previous occasions.

DILLON: Bruce Chadbourne is field director for detention and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New England.

CHADBOURNE: I'm sending a message that if you are removed from the United States and you come back to New England, you know, we're going to be looking for you. We're trying to establish this deterrent.

DILLON: Vermont's Republican governor, Jim Douglas, says immigration enforcement is not a top priority for state police, and he favors a guest worker program to allow Mexicans to work here legally.

JIM DOUGLAS: We have to have a rational immigration policy. We have to recognize the economic reality of ensuring the success of our dairy industry. Without those several thousand Mexican workers, farmers would be very hard pressed to find people in the workforce ready to take those jobs.

DILLON: Vermont's agriculture secretary, Steve Kerr, is more blunt. Kerr says the political debate in Washington misses the reality of what both farmers and workers need.

STEVE KERR: Washington is going to do what it always does. It's going to make a lot of noise, it's going to tighten some screws here and there in some high profile ways. It's not going to eradicate the country of illegal immigrants. We're just going to have more scared immigrants and more worried employers. How unproductive can you make this situation?

DILLON: The Senate version of the immigration bill includes an agriculture guest worker program that would allow most Mexicans in Vermont to be here legally.

For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vermont.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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