#5 Vermont’s Invisible Workforce

One of Vermont’s largest issues is its declining population. Last year while I was in Mexico I collaborated with a friend and made a short animation regarding this important issue. During the research process, we found data showing that between 2010 and 2014 approximately 2,852 foreign immigrants moved to Vermont. In addition, Vermont’s population only increased by 817 people. This means that without immigration to Vermont, the population would have declined by more than 2,000 people over the last four years; not only do our migrants play an irreplaceable role in our dairy industry, they help support much-needed population growth in the state. Despite their crucial role in the Vermont economy, there are legal and cultural tensions that surround migrant labor. Due to federal immigration laws, it is very difficult for Mexican migrant workers to obtain visas, so most live and work in Vermont without legal documentation. This forces them to live in the shadows without rights and resources, making assimilation difficult and exacerbating cultural differences between Mexicans and Vermonters.  The stakeholders most impacted by these tensions are the Mexican workers, the dairy farm owners and those who are fighting for social justice.

Mexicans come to Vermont to follow their dreams of prosperity and a better life. Many may be disappointed. In a VPR interview conducted in May of 2015, migrant worker Enrique Balcazar states, “There are many problems that our community faces… We are excluded from the Vermont minimum wage; there are also long work hours. You work, you get up at maybe 2 or 3 a.m., work 12 or 13 hours a day and maybe don’t have a day off, only to return to housing that is not dignified or quality housing.” Mexican farmworkers are not given the same freedoms or opportunities as those of the dominant race here in the U.S. Furthermore, they often can’t directly approach authority in fear of deportation. In a Ted talk by Sayu Bhojwani titled How immigrant voices make democracy stronger, Bhojwani says, “[Those] holding government positions had no idea how scared immigrants were of law enforcement. Most of us don’t know the difference, do we, between a sheriff and local police and the FBI. And most of us, when we see someone in uniform going through our neighborhoods feel curiosity, if not concern.” Undocumented workers tend to stay within the boundaries of their farm because “a chance encounter with local police could change the course of [their] life forever.”

Vermont farm owners vary in how they treat their workers. Some respect their workers and try to provide safe and healthy working and living conditions. In other cases, farmers take advantage of the Mexicans to get manual labor done for a very low cost. They use the workers’ undocumented status and threaten them until they get the job done. In a recent incident, town officials in Salisbury went to a farm owned by Randy and Jean Quesnel where they discovered the wretched living conditions of two Latino workers. According to a news story in Seven Days, “The laborers, who are in the country illegally, live in a small bunkhouse affixed to the barn where they milk cows. The two-room dwelling has an open wastewater drain in the middle of the concrete floor. There’s no indoor toilet; the workers must walk past the cow stanchions to a Porta-Potty outside the barn.” Knowing the Latino migrants won’t approach authority, the farm owners can use this situation to their advantage when deciding how much money they want to spend to feed, house and pay their workers.

Thankfully there are Vermonters who care deeply about social justice and want to ensure that our migrant worker population is treated with dignity and respect. One group, Migrant Justice has led a successful movement to defend the migrants from the inequalities and injustices they face. One successful example took place last year when a Migrant Justice leader was detained by ICE (US immigration and customs enforcement). Migrant Justice members created a petition and led multiple protests around the state, eventually securing his release. By raising awareness, groups like Migrant Justice hope to make Vermont a safer, more welcoming place for our much-needed migrant workers.

Migrant Justice is an example of a group that has come together to stop a particular type of injustice. By nature, humans can overcome racial, cultural, gender, age and other differences when united against an external force. Take World War II as an example; the American people united together to stop the Axis Powers. Not only did we unite as a country, but we aligned with 21 other countries to create the Allies. We all shared the similar mission of stopping the Axis Powers, so we forgot our differences and worked together to achieve a common goal. Yet once the War was over, nationalism returned and cultural, racial and ethnic tensions reemerged.  People have a natural fear of “the other”; that is, people who don’t look, speak or act like they do. Fear is what divides us and it is also what makes immigration reform so challenging.

Lastly, what pressuring questions do I have? My main question is what is the largest problem that Mexican migrants face in their day-to-day life? Is it low wages, poor living conditions or is it fear and isolation? Either way, I am excited to reach out to the migrant labor population to learn more.

 

Sources:

Featured image by Jennifer Williams

Bodette, Mitch Wertlieb Melody. “Farm Worker Advocates Target Ben & Jerry’s.” Vermont Public Radio. N.p., 12 May 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

“How Immigrant Voices Make Democracy Stronger.” Sayu Bhojwani:. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Flagg, Kathryn. “One Vermont Town Fights a Farm to Improve Housing for Migrant Workers.” Seven Days. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Justin Holmes

5 Responses to “#5 Vermont’s Invisible Workforce

  • Hi Justin,

    I really appreciate the obvious and meaningful research that went into this post: it’s clear that you examined the issue from several angles, and you do a good job of capturing the bigger picture and then moving inwards. One of the larger issues you mentioned was population, which made me wonder how that fits in with our global population problem–one that is pressing for opposite reasons. Maybe that means that our statewide issue should be solved not by increased birthrate, which would be detrimental to the already alarming global population, but by, as you suggested, an influx of people form other places. This could be a compelling detail when explaining your topic.

    I was also intrigued by your analogy to the U.S.’s involvement in WWII. I really like that you made that connection, especially with a historical and well-recognized event, because I think it adds a lot of depth. I also think that there’s perhaps more to that connection than you mentioned–the U.S. had a lot of reasons to get involved in the war, not all (or even most) of them altruistic. It also exhibited blatant racism through the segregation and harassment of troops of color, and the internment of Japanese Americans was a terrible episode in America’s history. I think that can be a good reminder of the disparity between patriotism and an actual endorsement of the ideals that the U.S. is built on. People were proud of their troops (and rightly) even while ignoring the atrocities that were being committed by their own side, and I think that these kind of blindnesses persist. Although our country was built by a mix of native people and immigrants, and our foundational documents promote equality and acceptance, new immigrants are treated terribly. Anyway, some stuff to think about, and I really enjoy the direction you’re going with this.

    -Clara

  • Dear Jus,

    When I was a teacher, I was aware that when I read student writing, I most often did it with one of two minds. Sometimes I read it as a teacher: looking for high points, keeping an eye out for inconsistencies… that sort of thing. I did not mind reading student work this way.

    But at other times I read student writing as if it were not “student writing.” That is to say, I would get caught up in the flow of the thing. This is how I read this blog.

    I found your reflection engendering questions, making me angry at the poor working conditions, heartened by the people who are trying to do the right thing.

    I want to know:

    How did the workers got here without getting nabbed?
    How do they cope being away from everything familiar, including those whom they love and care for?
    Why don’t the Feds infiltrate Vermont and do their Fed-type thing?
    How do farmers locate prospective workers?
    What kind of pressure is brought to bear on those who mistreat their workers — not official pressure but family and community pressures? I mean, certainly some people who are in the know consider this kind of treatment inhumane.
    What makes some folks fear the “other,” while others embrace it, and how could an understanding of this dichotomy help shine a light on the path away from xenophobia?

    Yes, Jus, your work may be focused on Mexican migrant laborers in Vermont, but the implications are far wider.

    Yours,
    Brad

    • Brad,

      Thank you for that compliment! I definitely find writing much easier when I’m able to focus on the subject and I really enjoy what I’m writing about. Of course, that’s probably true for just about everything I do.

      That list of questions that you put together is very well thought out and I share the same curiosity as you do. I know that many workers arrive here with “Coyotes,” who are the people that smuggle immigrants across the Mexican-American border. After they arrive in one of the southern states, I have very little idea as to how they get up here in Vermont. I believe that many of them hear about Vermont from relatives but I can’t be certain. The Folk Life Center had an exhibition called The Most Costly Journey which featured a collection of graphic novels illustrating the journey of four different Mexican farm workers as they make their way up to Vermont. They are all short reads (5-10 pages) but you can begin to understand more about the migrants’ travels to our beautiful state. I definitely suggest taking a look at it!

      Unfortunately, that is the only question I can even begin to answer. The other ones you mentioned will definitely play an important role in my research and in any interviews I conduct. I feel like I need personal experiences to answer those questions which at this moment, unfortunately, I do not have.

      I’ll be sure to fill you in on all the answers I come across while carrying out my research

      Thanks for really picking my mind and giving me goals to work for!
      Justin

  • Hi Justin,
    Wow, what a moving article. Even though our topics are pretty much identical, I feel like I really learn a lot from your blog posts, especially this one. I had never really connected the population of Vermont to migrant workers, but now that you mention it, I see how they are connected. I do have some questions about the impact of more immigrants. How do they contribute to large population benefits within our state? If they can’t send their children to schools, keeping the classroom numbers the same, how does that help our state’s issue of having trouble funding educations? And because the workers can’t leave the farms and take up other jobs because they’re undocumented, how does that impact the number of modern jobs in Vermont? Can’t wait to work with you as the year progresses.

    Elsa

    • Elsa,

      Thank you! I’m curious as to the answer of some of those questions as well. To begin with, I think that immigrants are essential to our population and the economy of our state. Without them, our state would be almost entirely retired folk who have second houses here. I believe we have the second highest average workforce age and the second highest median age in the country. Not many Vermonters stay in the state, a popular reason being the lack of jobs and job diversity. I agree that some of them can’t send their children to school and many of them can’t get a second job, but there are also many legal immigrants who enter Vermont and are a necessity to the well-being of our state.

      Hopefully that answered some questions and feel free to share your own opinions!
      Justin

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