Dairy Farmers Worried About Immigration Enforcement

11/24/09 7:50AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Dairy farmers and their immigrant workers are worried about a new federal enforcement effort launched last week.

The government is investigating whether farmers have hired undocumented workers. Up to 2,000 Mexicans work on Vermont dairy farms. And the crackdown could result in some workers being deported.

VPR's John Dillon visited a farm recently to see how the investigation has affected farmers and their employees.

(Barn sounds) "See how this isn't all the way in there? It's very important that these be set all the way in there... Sometimes alls it takes is just a jiggle."

(Host) It's a few hours after morning milking. The equipment is scrubbed clean and the cows are back in the barn. This young Addison County farmer has a new employee - the man is from Mexico and has milked cows before. But there are still a few details to go over.

(Farmer) "Do you guys understand when it's cold, or when it's hot how to regulate the windows, the curtains and the doors? Has anybody ever explained that to you?"

(Dillon) Today is like any other job orientation, except neither side can fully understand each other. Chris Urban, a high school Spanish teacher who has worked with Vermont migrant farm workers, helps break the language barrier.

(Farmer) "If a cow can't get up, call somebody, or you guys can put a ‘hakama' on her and try to pull ‘em out."

(Urban) "Hakama? What's that?"

(Farmer) "That's a halter, I think."

(Urban)  "In Spanish? I think there's some barn Spanglish, too! You have your own language."

(Farmer) "Oh, there's a lot of that, with a Vermont accent thrown in, man. I can't even speak English, let alone Spanish."

(Dillon) The farmer doesn't want his name used, or his farm identified. He says the Mexicans are a trusted part of his workforce. And he's asking them to take on more responsibility.

(Farmer) "If you guys see any cows while you're milking that every day give mucho milk, and then maybe nada, maybe they're ‘infirmo' or whatever. Write her number down or tell me.... You guys are very important. You guys run this farm. I don't milk the cows here. You guys know the cows."

(Dillon) But while the workers are essential, it's also a nerve-wracking time for both the employer and the employees. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently served subpoenas on five Vermont farms.

It's part of a national investigation to find out if companies have hired undocumented workers.

This farm didn't get a federal subpoena. But the farmer is nervous.

(Farmer) "If all of a sudden my guys were gone tomorrow, it would be really hard to operate."

(Dillon) But the farmer says there's not much he can do about the investigation. And he's protected somewhat by the law. He's required to produce an I-9 form that shows the workers are in the country legally. But the law doesn't require the employer to verify the accuracy of the workers' own identification papers, such as a green card or driver's license.

(Farmer) "I'm no expert on forged documents or anything like that. I get my paperwork, an I-9 form in place. I examine two forms of identification. And I go from there. I just hope they're legal, that we don't get audited. That's all we can do."

(Dillon) The farmer says few Americans want to work in a dairy barn, despite the recession and rising unemployment. He says his Mexican workers are part of a skilled workforce than can take a full year to train.

(Farmer) "It's hard to find people to do the work. And they're paid fairly well. I mean with housing, total - everything's paid for, heat electricity, everything, and they still get $8 to $10 to $12 an hour."

(Dillon) There's one more chore to go over this morning. The farmer wants to make sure the workers can run a Skidsteer, a machine used to move feed to the cows.

(Farmer) "The Skidsteer's a little different to start. There's the seat belt, you got to unplug it and it.. and push the button. But you can figure it out. But don't run it out of diesel."

(Dillon) The workers seem confident they can do the job. They say they're here because they can earn more in Vermont than at home.

And as they chat with the farmer in the barn, one asks if he can work more hours.

(Worker in Spanish, followed by Urban) "Three to four or five hours more per week or more."

(Dillon) Although they're relaxed on the job, they're also concerned about the immigration crackdown.

(Worker in Spanish followed by Urban) "Yeah, they're worried one day they might come here and take them, and they don't know what would happen."

(Dillon) The farmer says the best solution would be a guest worker program that would allow the Mexicans to come here legally.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Addison County.


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