Farmers worry about federal crackdown on immigrant workforce

10/24/07 4:51PM By John Dillon
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(Host) The 2,000 immigrant workers on Vermont dairy farms have always had a risky job. Many of the dairy workers are here illegally, and they can be deported if caught by federal authorities.

But now the farmers who hire them are also worried. Federal officials have vowed to crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal labor.

VPR's John Dillon has this report:

(Dillon) The milking is over by late morning at the Dodd farm in Sheldon in Franklin County. But there are still cows to be moved and corn to be chopped. All this work takes many hands. And Richard Dodd was two men short after an early morning raid by the U-S Border Patrol.

(Dodd) We had a couple guys that were coming to work. And they were driving down from their home - it's about a mile away - and pulled into the driveway, and three Border Patrol guys swarmed them and took them away.

(Dillon) Dodd hired replacement workers about a week later. Like the ones who were arrested, the new employees are from Mexico.

They showed him work documents that looked authentic. Dodd isn't asking how they came into the country.

(Dodd) No, I'd rather not know at this point. I mean, their IDs all look OK, and their Social Security cards. But who knows?

(Dillon) And for a Vermont farmer - or any employer - for now, that's where the legal obligation ends. An employer has to submit a federal worker verification form called an I-9. The worker has to present valid identification. But under the law, the employer does not have to verify that the documents are genuine.

It's a system of "don't ask, don't tell," because many Mexicans on dairy farms are not here with valid work visas.

And farmers are worried that the focus of federal enforcement will soon shift from the worker to the workplace.

How to prepare for that possibility was the topic of a legal seminar in Middlebury organized by the Vermont Farm Bureau. An immigration lawyer and a former Border Patrol agent heard questions like this:

(Farmer) Could you address the legal rights of, for example, employers who have employees living on their own property. What kind of legal rights are there if somebody from Border Patrol wishes to come onto your property? Do we as landowners have any legal rights?

No! (laughter) Yeah, you got some. And they are called constitutional rights. The right against illegal search and seizure.

(Dillon) Philip Boyle is an immigration lawyer with 20 years experience in California and Vermont. He did have some good news for the farmers. Two weeks ago, a federal court in California blocked the government from going ahead with a planned crackdown on companies that employ illegal immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security had proposed new rules that could have forced companies to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don't match a federal database.

A coalition of groups sued. And a judge stopped the rule from going into effect, pending a court trial. But Boyle said the pressure is still on from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a new federal law enforcement agency known as ICE.

(Boyle) There are going to more and more workplace enforcement issues, whether this Social Security thing goes on... It sounds like it's on hold for a while. But the point is there are other enforcement techniques out there that we all know about. Somebody sees a foreign-looking person at Wal-Mart and so calls ICE. Or doesn't like somebody and calls ICE and says that guy has got illegals. Whatever it is. There are all sorts of ways ICE can come out and visit without this regulation to worry about.

(Dillon) Bruce Foucart is the special agent in charge for ICE investigations in New England. He says ICE's priority is workplace enforcement. And dairy farmers - or anybody who hires illegals - should be concerned.

(Foucart) We don't discern. We'll go after corporations, single employers... We attempt to go out and prove a criminal case, prove a criminal violation. But it doesn't matter to us what the size of the company is.

(Dillon) At the legal form, Chris Martel tried to give the insider's perspective. He's a former federal agent and intelligence research specialist with the Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security. He said the law makes farmers and other employers legally responsible if they know - or have some evidence - that their workers are illegal.

(Martel) If there's spelling errors. If there's alterations. If the photo doesn't even appear like that, that's constructive knowledge. You're liable for those things. And if you're housing the people on your property, and you have constructive knowledge that it isn't the proper document they should have, then you're liable even more for harboring that person.

(Dillon) In Vermont, Mexican workers are often kept isolated on the farm. The workers run the risk of arrest if they head out to church or to the grocery store.

Sound of bus station...

(Dillon) But people sometimes have to travel. And the Burlington bus station is known as a danger zone for immigrants. Farmers said their workers have been arrested there by the Border Patrol.

A cab driver named Jerry - he wouldn't give his last name - was waiting for fares on a recent sunny morning. The cabbie says he's firmly against foreign workers.

(Jerry) Personally, I feel that they don't belong here. If they have a right to be here, why don't they come here under their own power instead of paying people big bucks to get them across from Mexico to the United States.

(Dillon) The cab driver has a Border Patrol pin on his hat. He says he sometimes tips off federal authorities if he sees someone he believes is illegal.

(Jerry) Well, I'd personally turn them in. And I've done it a good many times.

(Dillon) Vermont is a very white state so immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- can stand out. Law enforcement is prohibited from conducting racial profiling. But many Mexicans believe police and federal agents do practice a subtle form of profiling.

Amparo Anguiano is the acting consul for the government of Mexico in Boston.

(Anguiano) So if they see that someone looks different but they cannot stop this person just because this person looks different because that would be racial profiling, they can perhaps take any excuse, any little irregularity, maybe the car light, maybe some speed limit, maybe some other minor not necessarily serious issue, and stop this person on that basis. And maybe if someone else were doing exactly the same, they might turn a blind eye.

(Dillon) Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper says state police do not practice racial profiling. He says the state is not interested in enforcing federal immigration law, although if someone is stopped - and they can't produce valid ID - they may get turned over to federal immigration authorities.

(Sleeper) We have as close to a `don't ask, don't tell policy' on immigration violations as you possibly can come close to.

(Dillon) Sleeper says Congress and the federal government have failed to address immigration reform. That's put a burden on local law enforcement, he says.

(Sleeper) We all need to recognize that there are literally millions of illegal aliens contributing to our labor force in this country. We've looked the other way for years. It's relatively new to Vermont, but it certainly isn't new to the rest of the country. And without that comprehensive reform in Washington, it's being balanced on the back of state and local law enforcement. And we don't want it.

(Dillon) Vermont dairy farmers don't like the legal limbo of hiring someone whose legal status may be questioned.

Richard Dodd in Sheldon says he doesn't know what he'd do if the government cracked down on dairy farms. But he says finding local people to do the milking is difficult, if not impossible.

(Dodd) I don't know... Just doesn't seem like anybody wants to work any more. Either that or just do any easy job, and put their 8 hours in. I mean these guys will put as many hours in as you'll give them. ... They work 65 hours a week and they always want more.

(Dillon) Dairy farmers like Dodd have turned to Congress for help. They're lobbying for a bill that would let them hire workers from other countries when local help can't be found.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.


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