THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Indivisible Labor

Vermont’s migrant farmworkers organize for justice

by Piper French

Illustration by Ivan Rios-Fetchko

published April 21, 2017


content warning: xenophobia, violent death

 

 

Patricio Hernandez, Pato for short, lives and works on a dairy farm that sits just off of I-89, Vermont’s only highway. It’s postcard-perfect: a red barn, fields of corn for miles, heifers dotting the pasture. The farm’s owner is well known in the community and sells his milk to Cabot Creamery, a national dairy company. 

Pato’s apartment, which he shares with his two uncles, is built into one end of the farm’s multi-car garage. From the road, it’s impossible to tell that anyone lives there. The only sign that the structure is anything other than a shed is a small Justicia Migrante sticker on the doorpost. Justicia Migrante, translated as Migrant Justice, is the organization that Pato works with to fight for the rights of the approximately 1,500 migrant farmworkers, mostly from Mexico, who currently sustain Vermont’s dairy industry. 

 

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Vermont’s economy and its myth go hand in hand. Especially for out-of-state residents, it’s hard to imagine the state without thinking of its trademark products: maple syrup, farm-fresh milk, Cabot cheese, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Ben & Jerry’s logo shows green fields filled with grazing cows; Cabot cheddar wrappers depict a barn and silo set against turning leaves or snowy pastures depending on the season, and stress that the company is “owned by our farm families.” The state has capitalized on its reputation as a bucolic agricultural paradise to sell products and build its brand at the same time: according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, dairy brings in over $2 billion to Vermont every year, and tourists contribute over $2.6 billion more, lured by images of fall foliage and men in flannel tapping maple trees. 

Notably absent from this pastoral narrative are the very people who make it possible:  Pato and his fellow workers. Over the course of the past 20 years, migrant workers from Mexico and Central America have come to make up almost 90 percent of the dairy farm workforce in Vermont. As the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)  brought cheap American corn to Mexico and made subsistence farming across Mexico unsustainable, many people, generally men, came to the US in search of higher wages in order to support their families and communities. A few of them ended up in Vermont, where they were soon joined by friends, brothers, and cousins. Pato came over from New York after his uncles told him that there was work available on their farm. 

It’s incontrovertible that Vermont farm owners rely on migrant workers for their labor at this point. It’s worth noting that the language that people, including members of Migrant Justice, generally use in reference to the farming industry reinforces the division between “farmers” (the farm owners, generally white, male Vermonters whose families have lived in the state for generations) and “workers” (employees who farm for a wage and are overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America). The traditional model of family farms that is still broadcasted by Cabot and Ben & Jerry’s is in crisis, and most native Vermonters are unwilling to perform the type of labor that such farming jobs require. And yet, “the hand that milks the cows is nowhere in sight,” Will Lambek, the communications director for Migrant Justice, told the Independent. Erasure of labor happens everywhere, especially when it’s provided by migrant workers of varying degrees of legal status. But the hypocrisy is especially pointed in a state like Vermont, which also derives a large part of its mythos from its feel-good hippie atmosphere and progressive politics.

Moreover, many of the qualities that contribute to Vermont’s reputation also make it a remarkably difficult place to be a migrant worker, says Dr. Teresa Mares, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont whose research focuses on food insecurity among Vermont’s migrant farmworkers. Though labor and safety issues on the farms are fairly consistent with those experienced by migrant workers around the country—long hours with no time off, pitiful wages, dangerous machinery, and no workplace protection—other, more intangible factors add up. Vermont is 95 percent white, and dairy farms tend to be concentrated in the most isolated, rural, and conservative parts of the state. Grocery stores and doctors’ offices are “a hike,” as Vermonters say, and there’s little access to public transportation. Many of the state’s dairy farms are in Franklin County, close to the Canadian border, where there is a heavy border patrol presence. State police are more likely to collude with federal immigration officials, which has lead to a number of racial profiling cases in the past, according to Mares. 

“One of the largest factors in what allows the abuse to continue is the way the community has been invisibilized,” Lambek tells me the first time I meet him. Just seven years ago, Vermont’s migrant farmworkers lived sequestered on the farms—unable to drive, afraid to go to the supermarket for fear of police or white Vermonters targeting them because of their nonstandard English and dark skin. In December 2009, amidst this shadow climate, a young migrant worker named José Obeth Santiz Cruz was pulled into a gutter scraper and strangled.

 

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Not a lot is known of José Obeth’s time in Vermont prior to his death. In the only photos of him online, it’s winter. In one, he’s standing in the snow in jeans and a thin plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his face obscured by a falling flake. In the other he is squatting, giving the camera a thumbs up. He was just 20 years old when he died, and though many people from his rural community in Chiapas, Mexico, lived and worked on farms around Vermont, they had no way to come together for a memorial, Vermont Public Radio reports. 

Shocked by the death, a group of farmworkers and allies raised the money to bring José Obeth’s body back to his family in Chiapas. That trip lead to the formation of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, which grew into Migrant Justice in late 2011. Lambek, whose job is to spread Migrant Justice’s message to the English-speaking community of Vermont, is one of only two white employees—the rest are Latinx, and almost all have had experience working on farms in the past. The organization is overseen by the Farmworker Coordinating Committee, which is entirely composed of farmworkers. Asambleas (assemblies) are a crucial component of the organizing process: approximately once a month, migrant workers and their allies split into groups, discuss their organizing goals, plan for the battles ahead, and share food. It is one of the few moments of community and communion for people who almost never get a day off. 

Today, Migrant Justice is based in the back of an unassuming building in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood. Posters and flyers paper the office’s walls, reminders of Migrant Justice’s past victories. In just seven years, the organization has engaged in coalition building and grassroots organizing to successfully advocate for everything from a law allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses in 2013 to an anti-racial profiling policy requiring law enforcement agencies to implement“bias-free” policing, which was extended in 2014. 

In 2014, Migrant Justice petitioned Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk With Dignity program, which had been adapted from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Fair Food Program implemented in Florida. The company “purchases the majority of its cream from St. Albans Cooperative farms where many (if not the majority)” of migrant farmworkers in Vermont are based, according to Migrant Justice’s website. 

Ben & Jerry’s has “staked its image,” in Lambek’s words, on its local sourcing and origin story—two guys scooping cones at a single shop in downtown Burlington—despite the fact that it is now owned by the transnational corporation Unilever and distributed across 34 countries. During the Milk with Dignity campaign, Migrant Justice capitalized on the company’s reputation as a progressive, socially-aware business. Brendan O’Neill, an organizer with Migrant Justice, told the New York Times, “They have fair-trade coffee. They have cage-free eggs. We think they can do more for dairy workers, too.” The strategy was a success: in May 2015, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to join the program and implement its demands, which include recognition of farmworkers’ fundamental human rights and the creation of third party monitoring bodies. It will also mean that the company pays higher prices per gallon of milk, which will positively impact both farm owners and farmworkers. 

 

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Pato is soft spoken, with a permanent half-smile, and sits with his legs tucked beneath him. He downplays his organizing role with Migrant Justice to me, but Lambek says he’s been involved almost since the beginning. Urgent problems—Pato had a broken heater in the middle of winter—are often the catalyst for migrant workers to reach out to Migrant Justice (generally via Teleayuda, the organization’s hotline). They usually represent only a fraction of the true mistreatment and injustice that workers experience, often without knowing that they have the right to be treated better. 

Working with Migrant Justice, “you learn things about your rights that you didn’t even know before,” Pato told the Independent,  “as a worker, as a person.” He was especially active in the 2014 campaign to allow undocumented people access to state drivers’ licenses, which he described as “dos años de lucha” ("two years of struggle"). As a result of the new license laws, he says, “now we feel safer, more comfortable” venturing into the outside world to buy groceries or go to an appointment. 

When he first started work on his farm, Pato didn’t leave the property for over a year, not even for groceries or medical appointments. Over the course of their six-year relationship, Pato and his employer have built more trust between each other. Today, Pato earns $10 an hour, Vermont’s minimum wage, and has what he describes as a lighter schedule: one day off a week, split between two half days, and 36 hours of paid time off a month. He’s so upbeat about his current schedule that it’s easy to forget he still works up to 14 hour days, six days a week—around 90 hours a week. 

Despite his history of being treated poorly, Pato has sympathy for the challenges of owning a dairy farm. “I understand—running a farm is difficult,” he tells me. It’s an attitude shared by Migrant Justice, which tries to emphasize the shared interests of farmworkers and their bosses. “When farmers get more for their milk, they can pay their workers more,” Lambek says. However, Migrant Justice doesn’t shy away from taking legal action against farmers who owe their workers back wages, or publicly decrying abuses when they occur. 

 

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Migrant Justice has most recently focused its energy on the “No Más Polimigra” campaign, a statewide push for police accountability that has its roots in the fair and impartial policing bill from 2014. Polimigra, a portmanteau of the words policia and la migra (immigration agents), describes collaboration between local police forces and federal immigration agents, which often results in arrest and deportation stemming from routine traffic stops. In one recent case in Grand Isle, near the Canadian border, a migrant worker named Lorenzo Alcudia was stopped by a sheriff on the way to a Migrant Justice meeting. Alcudia was asked if he was “supposed to be here” and held for over an hour until the US Border Patrol arrived and detained him. The car’s driver, who was white, received little more than a reprimand for speeding. 

After taking legal action against the county sheriff’s department, Alcudia won a $30,000 settlement for discrimination. Migrant Justice has also achieved success in the Vermont legislature: in July 2016, the state of Vermont passed an updated “Fair and Impartial Policing” policy, which will “provide legal guidance to ensure that ICE cannot unilaterally turn any precinct into a local Homeland Security outpost,” according to the Nation. 

Vermont’s small size and progressive beliefs mean that the state has frequently adopted laws significantly left of the federal government. Since the election, this gap has widened into a gulf. In the wake of President Trump’s attempts to expand the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the Department of Homeland Security and broaden the category of undocumented immigrants deemed a “priority for removal,” the “Fair and Impartial Policing” policy has become even more crucial for Vermont’s migrant workers—and more controversial. Compliance with the policy will theoretically grant townships “sanctuary city” status, but it could also mean losing out on federal funds. According to the Burlington Free Press, there are currently several proposals in Congress to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities.

These threats to the Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which come only months after it was finally made law, highlight the ways in which increased visibility can also translate to vulnerability. In the past month alone, ICE agents have arrested several Vermont-based migrant activists who have been vocal in their quest for greater rights. On March 23, undercover agents detained Alex Carrillo, who has been living in Vermont for seven years. The following day, two more activists, Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios, were pulled over by police while driving toward Burlington and then arrested. 

Matt Cameron, the attorney for all three, told Vermont Public Radio that his clients have been “the target for some time of surveillance and targeting… there’s nothing about Enrique that would set him apart other than outspoken advocacy for his community.” After protests by Migrant Justice and community members in Vermont and Boston, statements from Senators Sanders and Patrick Leahy, and letters in support (including one from Ben & Jerry’s), Balcazar and Palacios were released, but Carrillo remains in custody, and deportation proceedings for all three are underway—though the process will likely take years. 

In the meantime, Migrant Justice and its members will keep fighting. As of this month, they have reopened the Milk with Dignity campaign after the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s repeatedly put off signing the agreement. On April 4, activists protested alongside people waiting in lines to get ice cream on Free Cone Day. On May 1, International Worker’s Day, they will march from the original Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop to the Federal Building: tying the struggle for fair wages to resistance to the Trump administration’s discriminatory immigration policies, protesting a reality in which they are asked to provide their labor and punished for it at the same time. 

 

PIPER FRENCH B’17 thinks there’s no such thing as a free cone.