VALLEY NEWS  (White River Junction, Vermont)

April 23, 2017

 

Making It Here: Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Creates Anxiety Among Farmworkers

 


Valley News Staff Writer

 

Marie, whose large dark eyes and shining black hair make her cute even by the ridiculously cute standard of 3-year-old girls, grabbed the cat carrier, almost as big as she was, and dragged it from the depths of the garage to the gravel driveway, where Daffy, a reformed barn cat lounging in the spring sunshine, eyed her warily.

Marie’s mother Lee Anne, 28, kept one eye on Marie as she fielded a phone call and got ready to go pick up Marie’s older sister from school.

“I don’t feel young anymore,” Lee Anne said, after hanging up. “Sometimes I still feel like I’m a teenager, but then I’m like, ‘definitely not!’ ”

Lee Anne and Marie live on a dairy farm in the Upper Valley, where Lee Anne’s Mexican-born husband, Miguel, 29, works. (Their names have been changed to protect the family from possible enforcement actions by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.)

“Momma!” Marie said, one hand still on the cat carrier. “I want him in there!”

Like most mid-afternoons these days, Marie was just barely staving off a bout of fatigue-induced crankiness.

“I suppose,” said Lee Anne, stooping to pick up Daffy. “But I’m taking the blanket out. He’ll sweat.”

A moment later, Daffy escaped into the treeline, free for now, but with Marie trailing after him.

“Hey!” she scolded. “You need to go to the vet!”

Lee Anne and her two young daughters, all born in the Upper Valley, rely on Miguel, who is husband, father and breadwinner. Miguel has been the steady hand, guiding his family through the challenges of life.

He’s also their sole source of income, performing backbreaking labor alongside other Mexico-born immigrants on the dairy farm to earn his paycheck. The very home Lee Anne and Marie live in — a neatly kept freestanding house and garage hidden from the farm’s central buildings by a screen of trees — depends on Miguel’s position on the farm.

But Miguel’s position, and his family’s future, are not secure.

Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based advocacy group, estimates that 1,500 undocumented migrants now make up a majority of the Vermont farm workforce, producing dairy products for brands including Cabot cheese and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, as well as harvesting vegetable and fruit crops. Undocumented immigrants are also found on some New Hampshire dairy farms, as well.

But President Donald Trump’s hardline rhetoric and executive orders on a variety of immigration issues have created a climate of uncertainty and fear for both blue-collar and white-collar immigrants in the Upper Valley. Some are here illegally, and worry that enforcement agents who once targeted criminals within the migrant community have broadened their net, increasing the risk of detention and deportation for migrants whose only crime is being here. Others are here legally, but the documentation that gives them legal standing seems increasingly fragile, leaving them to worry that their legal status will be revoked, their families torn apart and their path to citizenship erased.

Miguel and Lee Ann find themselves in the latter situation.

“I usually make him breakfast and lunch, but I didn’t make him breakfast this morning because he went in at 4:30 in the morning to vaccinate cows,” Lee Anne said.

“All he does is work for us.”

 

A Love Story

Lee Anne started to talk about how she and Miguel had come to live there, but Marie took advantage of the lapse in Lee Anne’s attention to climb halfway up a pallet leaning precariously against a fence. Mother and daughter had exchanged words about this before.

“Can you get down from there, please?” Lee Anne said. “You’re going to fall.”

“I’m not going to fall,” Marie said.

Lee Anne retrieved her daughter who, she said, was getting heavier all the time.

A few minutes later, Marie called to Lee Anne, who turned to see her back up the pallet.

“Momma!” she said, happy to have her mother’s attention. “I’m going to fall!”

In 2009, when a 20-year-old Lee Anne was visiting family in North Carolina, she walked into a McDonald’s to get a cheeseburger for her brother. Miguel, then 21, was behind the counter. He had come to the country with his parents in 2006 on a legal work visa.

“He was frying burgers and I looked at him and we both — this might sound messed up — but we’re both like ‘damn!,’ ” said Lee Anne, laughing.

Miguel was scrupulous about his appearance. “He’s a very clean, neat person. He keeps himself smelling good. He’s really into that,” she said.

They exchanged phone numbers, and Lee Anne gave him a ride home that night. But what began as a casual hookup turned into a string of encounters, with a depth of feeling that went beyond her attraction to his smile, and the look in his eyes. Lee Anne moved to North Carolina so they could be together.

In the early years, the romance was bumpy and chaotic, taking place on emotional ground made more unstable by Lee Anne’s struggle with addictions to various substances. But, as can be the case sometimes, each gave the other a reason to become a better version of themselves. Miguel’s mother taught Lee Anne to cook Mexican food — masa dough and soft corn husks for tamales, meats and sauces with flavors that seemed exotic in the context of her Vermont upbringing. They had a daughter, Marie’s older sister, and Lee Anne and Miguel got serious about confronting Lee Anne’s addiction to drugs. She enrolled in a program at a suboxone clinic, and then tried to cheat the system. She fooled her doctors, but not Miguel.

“He caught me doing it one day when I wasn’t supposed to be doing it. He told me that if I didn’t stop, then he was going to leave and take my daughter,” she said. The tough love worked.

After they got sober, they got aspirations. McDonald’s no longer made sense.

They moved in with Lee Anne’s grandparents in the Upper Valley in New Hampshire, and Miguel began working at local farms. At the farm where they now live, he started out as a barn pusher, mucking stalls, moving cows from place to place, and delivering calves.

The grime and dust of the barnyard were at odds with his natural neatness, but he didn’t shy from hard work, typically beginning at 7 a.m. and quitting at 7 p.m. In time, he grew to enjoy working with his hands, often outdoors. His employers liked him because his English was so good that he could translate for other workers. When he got home, he was often too exhausted to do much beyond eating dinner and going to bed. During the transition, Miguel’s legal status expired, leaving him with two unpleasant options.

In America, he had a job, and a daughter, and a woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. In Mexico, the job opportunities were nonexistent, part of the reason that his parents had come to America. He’d heard that the rise of Mexican drug cartels had transformed the old neighborhoods into hotbeds of violence.

It was a fairly easy decision. He didn’t return to Mexico.

Miguel had just become an undocumented immigrant.

 

American Dream

Miguel’s family situation is becoming increasingly common in the Upper Valley, as two iconic American cultural tropes — the immigrant seeking a brighter future, and the family farmer doing backbreaking work to reap the soil’s harvest — have blended to form a new incarnation of the American Dream. Steve Taylor, a Meriden dairy farmer and former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner, says he first became aware of migrant workers coming to the region’s dairy farms in the early 1980s.

“A guy was showing me his operation,” said Taylor. “He pointed to a guy raking manure from stalls. He said, ’that guy is an electrical engineer back home in El Salvador, and he can make more money raking (manure) here.’ That struck me as tragic.”

Taylor said family-owned agricultural operations have historically relied on the labor of large extended families, but changing demographics and an exodus of young people from the Twin States have left many of those farmers without the skilled labor force they need to survive.

While Vermont’s dairy products are a $1.3 billion economic industry, creating a vital export and constituting a large part of the local food economy, the industry is in decline, having shrunk from more than 2,000 milk cow operations to 868 since the late 1980s. In New Hampshire, 19 of the state’s 120 remaining dairy farms closed their doors in the first eight months of 2016.  Over the past few decades, Taylor said, many farms that would have otherwise died out have managed to survive by tapping into a workforce from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

In 2015, 7 million unauthorized immigrants, comprising 3.5 percent of the U.S. population, made up 4.9 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to research cited by the Center for American Progress, a progressive research and public policy organization.

 

Walking Through Fire

Miguel’s current employer, Mike Walker (not his real name), is an Upper Valley dairy farmer who hired his first Mexican immigrant in 2004. That worker recommended a hersdman, who recommended a milker and a feeder.

Now, a group of roughly 15 Mexican workers form the nucleus of his workforce, and run almost every aspect of his farm.

Walker and his Mexican laborers have a close relationship that in some ways reflects the family farming culture that powered the industry through its heyday in bygone decades.

The migrant workers, said Walker, work hard, and with attention to detail, traits that were more prominent in farming when the labor was being performed by a nuclear family whose financial stake was tied to the farm’s success. “These guys would walk through fire for me,” he said. “And I would walk through fire for them.”

Walker said he repays loyalty with loyalty. For example, when he discovered that one of his workers was diabetic, he insisted on paying for the man’s insulin, at an ongoing cost of $155 each week.

He pointed to a contented-looking cow.

“We had that cow down for 23 days after she calved,” he said. “He fed and watered that cow for 23 days, twice a day. And she got up. She would have died.”

Most of the workers split their time between the U.S. and Mexico. When they come, they live on the farm, and Walker drives them to do errands, including buying food and going to St. Albans or Boston to fill out paperwork related to their immigration status. He buys them tickets to go back to Mexico, and takes them for medical and dental care.

Without families to distract them, and with limited time to work in the country, they are generally eager to put in as many hours as they can, which suits Walker just fine. “We want them to work 60 hours (a week). In peak demand, sometimes 70,” he said. “When we’re really flat out, … to-the-wall, they might work 90.”

Walker declined to say exactly how much he paid the workers, but described it as a good hourly rate, that was above minimum wage. The workers also live on the farm, in a variety of houses. Walker said he couldn’t survive on the labor of American-born workers. “If somebody, for some reason, said all the Mexicans that are here that aren’t U.S. citizens, we’re going to discontinue their availability, whether they’re legal or not? We would cease to milk cows,” he said. “We would not milk cows. We would try to do something else.”

Across the country, “at least” 50 to 70 percent of farmworkers are undocumented, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit lobbying organization.

As far as he knows, Walker said, his workers all have legal status, but he also acknowledged that he’s not certain. About eight years ago, when he was stopped for speeding, the police officer discovered a Mexican worker who was riding in his truck had falsified documentation and arrested him. Walker also said that, over the years, he’s had to fire a worker or two.

“They’re not perfect,” Walker said. “They’re just the closest thing to perfect that I’ve found.”

 

A Culture of Fear

During the winter of 2011-2012, at the end of his shift, Miguel asked his boss to give him a ride to a local store, where he could buy a few things and then be picked up by Lee Anne. But because of a miscommunication, Lee Anne tried to pick him up from his workplace, while he waited for her at the store.

While he stood outside, a local policeman pulled up and eyed Miguel.

“What are you doing?” the officer asked, according to Lee Anne.

“I’m waiting for my wife to come pick me up,” answered Miguel. Then he added, “I’m working.”

The officer didn’t move on. Instead, he asked the question Miguel was dreading.

“Are you legal here?”

Stories of crackdowns against undocumented immigrants, and suspected undocumented immigrants, are often nearly invisible to the public, but send shockwaves through the local migrant population, according to Melanie Lawrence, a doctor at a health clinic in Newbury, Vt., who often dispenses medical care to the migrant workers on farms in the northern Upper Valley.

Five years ago — around the same time the police officer asked a nervous Miguel whether he was in the country legally — a farmer who took a group of his Mexican workers to their monthly shopping trip got a nasty surprise — federal agents arrested them en masse.

“It felt like Germany again,” said Lawrence

Those events happened under former President Barack Obama, who in 2014 pushed for providing more pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now, the ascension of Donald Trump on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment has increased fears that he will achieve his stated goal of mass deportations. In January, he issued executive orders asking for 10,000 additional immigration officers.

“Those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety,” wrote Trump, adding that sanctuary jurisdictions “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

In an emailed response to questions from the Valley News, Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency was upholding the executive orders and confirmed that agents are operating under a zero-tolerance directive on illegal immigrants.

“ICE conducts targeted enforcement, meaning we’re looking for specific criminal aliens,” wrote Neudauer. “That said, ICE officers do often encounter others in the course of their duties who may have no criminal record, but are otherwise subject to immigration enforcement, and can be arrested during the encounter. The president has made clear that there are no classes of aliens for whom enforcement will be ignored.”

A week ago, The Washington Post reported that, between Trump’s inauguration and mid-March, arrests of immigrants who have no criminal records increased to about 5,400, as compared to 2,300 during the same period in 2015 under the Obama administration. During the same time period, the arrests of immigrants with criminal records increased only slightly, from 15,300 under Obama in 2015, to 15,900 under Trump this year.

Weeks after the order was signed, three migrant activists were arrested in Vermont; two were released on bail in March after hundreds of protestors marched outside a Boston courtroom.

Lawrence said the deck is stacked against these workers, because they can’t advocate for themselves without increasing their risk of harassment from authorities.

“We’ve just taken this whole group of people who are in this country for the sole purpose of working hard and feeding their families, and now we’ve added this whole dimension of fear to their existence,” she said.

Experts say a heavy-handed approach to undocumented immigrants is likely to hurt American business interests.

“If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 billion to $60 billion,” according to an American Farm Bureau Federation report, which also found that losses in productivity for fruit, vegetables and livestock would result in food price increases of up to 6 percent, and would drive more Americans to rely on food imported from other countries.

In all, 11.1 million of the 43.3 million foreign-born people living in the United States are undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2014, 5.8 million unauthorized immigrants from Mexico resided in the U.S., down from a high of 6.9 million in 2007.

 

Pride and Prejudices

At their house on the farm, Lee Anne promised Marie a trip to the ice cream stand with her sister. Marie tried to behave, but her patience was growing thin, and she couldn’t bear sitting still. As the spring sun continued to warm the air, the exertions of her play caused her to sweat.

“Can you please get your hair out of your face?” Lee Anne asked Marie. “I don’t like you,” Marie answered. A moment later, she burst into tears.

Miguel and his family regularly face prejudice in the Upper Valley, where, Lee Anne said, people are less used to seeing people with dark complexions. When his parents come to town from North Carolina, insults that Lee Anne and Miguel are used to shrugging off begin to hurt all over again, even during an innocuous trip to get ice cream.

“People were just staring at them. They felt so uncomfortable. They’re all dressed nice. They all have smiles on their face. They’re all nice people and you still are going to stare at them like they’re from another planet?” said Lee Anne.

Phil Boudreau, who owns a tire company in Bradford, Vt., was servicing the massive tires on the farming equipment at Walker’s farm. Behind him, Mexico-born workers hurried from task to task, cleaning and shoveling.

Boudreau said the decline of farming has left fewer tractors and mixing wagons for him to work on, which has put a crimp on his business. He’s thankful, he said, to the farms that remain, and keep him employed.

But he does not welcome the presence of undocumented immigrants, in the Upper Valley or elsewhere in the country. To Boudreau, America’s traditional work ethic has broken down under the pressure of a massive entitlement system that doles out welfare benefits and gives people an excuse not to work. He largely blames Obama.

“Why would you want to go to work when they will mail you a check?” he said.

The migrants who were hustling all around him, Boudreau said, are not representative of the larger whole. “That’s a small minority,” he said. “How many farms are there compared to the number of people coming here illegally?”

Migrants, he said, are leeching benefits away from native-born Americans. “They collect Social Security, that they never paid into it,” he said. “You don’t mean to tell me you don’t know any of this stuff?”

Walker disagrees with this sentiment.

He said he knows the workers on his farm pay Social Security, because he’s the one who deducts it from their paychecks and mails it in.

“All of the undocumented workers in this country that are working for any kind of a business, almost all of them, virtually guaranteed, are paying into the Social Security system,” he said. “And they will never get it back. It’s supporting the rest of us. Most people have no understanding of that. Zero.”

Lawrence said she’s noticed a change in her migrant patients at the Newbury Health Clinic since Trump’s election in November. They’ve always deprived themselves of some of the pleasures of life back home — because a gathering of Mexicans would draw unwanted attention, they often abstain from networking between farms to organize soccer games or dances, or camping trips. But now, young men who used to joke about the deprivation are more withdrawn, she said, reluctant to discuss any topic related to their legal status. Some have avoided her office altogether, part of an effort to stay on the farm, out of sight, as much as possible.

“These people are shoveling manure, milking cows at 3 in the morning and being outside and fixing a broken pipe in 10-below weather,” she said. “These are not people on welfare. These are not people causing violence. They are giving us our milk, meat and apples.”

 

Jailed

“Don’t mess up my clean house,” Lee Anne told Marie, who, tired of her mother’s divided attention, was beelining into the house to amuse herself. Lee Anne said she and Miguel are trying to save money, to achieve the next rung in the ladder of American success, and join the ranks of the 6,850 immigrant entrepreneurs in the Twin States.

“We want to open a restaurant,” Lee Anne said. “A Mexican restaurant, with real Mexican food.”

Marie came out of the house.

“Momma, I don’t know where the fish is now. I throwed (it) out of the fish tank,” she said.

By the time she finished the sentence, Lee Anne was sprinting past her and into the front door, shouting.

“What did you do that for?” she asked.

“Because I was going to pet it,” said Marie.

With his family relying on him, Miguel is fully committed to building a better life for them. But in 2012, when he stood talking to the police officer outside that store, he learned the only thing that could prevent him from reaching that goal was the federal government.

The officer arrested Miguel and detained him at the local police station. Soon, immigration agents came to escort him to the Strafford County Department of Corrections in Dover. “Then he was sent to Boston with criminals,” said Lee Anne. “Like, with murderers.”

In all, Miguel spent three months in jail, during which time Lee Anne and their daughter had no source of income. As Miguel awaited deportation proceedings in Boston, people told the couple that they needed better representation than what was on offer from the public defenders. They had to hire a lawyer, a good lawyer. The $1,000 retainer was well beyond Lee Anne’s financial grasp, but she successfully begged the lawyer to accept a payment plan.

The lawyer got Miguel’s bond reduced to $3,500. Miguel’s parents fronted half the money, and Lee Anne’s mother contributed the proceeds of her tax refund. Lee Anne and her grandparents paid the rest.

Because Miguel was in contested removal proceedings in court, he was given an alien number that temporarily protected him from being deported. “For three years, we were paying a lawyer, filling out paperwork, going to St. Albans, going to Boston for court dates and stuff like that,” said Lee Anne.

In order to bolster his argument for legal status, they decided to marry. It wasn’t how they pictured their marriage would be — under legal pressure — but they also didn’t want to lose each other.

Finally, Miguel was issued a green card, and intends to apply to become a naturalized citizen in a couple of years. But he and Lee Anne worry that his application will be less likely to be successful under the Trump administration — if he makes it that far.

“Another thing we worry about is, what if they pull you over and give you a ticket? They think that’s a crime,” said Lee Anne. “Even though he’s legal, cause Trump was talking about taking away peoples green cards for things as small as a traffic ticket.”

For Lee Anne, the path to a restaurant, and a better life, is fraught with danger. Every law enforcement officer is a reason to sweat. Every interaction with the government is stressful and expensive. Every trip off the farm with Miguel draws stares of mistrust from neighbors.

Three-year-old Marie, born in the Upper Valley, doesn’t understand why her father comes home after the sun has set, exhausted and smelling like cows, or why he’s sometimes uncomfortable away from the sanctuary of the farm. She doesn’t know about the political forces that swirl around her family and threaten to tear them apart.

All she knows is that, finally, blissfully, it’s time to clamber into the car’s back seat so that her mother can pick up her sister from a school that, if she’s fortunate, she herself will be able to attend one day.

Then, finally, ice cream.