A little bit of Mexico came to Middlebury last weekend. Officials from the Mexican government were in town to help its citizens renew passports or obtain other documents.
This year’s event came at a time of increasing tension for Mexicans in Vermont.
Twice a year – in summer and early winter – the Mexican government sets up a mobile consulate office in Vermont. The winter session is held in Middlebury. And this past Saturday, dozens of farmworkers waited patiently for their names to be called for passport photos and new IDs.
Graciela Gómez García is the acting consul general of Mexico in Boston. She took a break Saturday from processing documents to talk about the consulate visit.
The office usually sees about 200 people at the daylong event, Gómez García said — but not all come for official business. They also come to socialize and share a meal of takeout pizza and home-cooked tamales.
“In many occasions it is families," Gómez García said. "Maybe not every person is getting a document. But there is a feeling of home."
It's a time of great uncertainty for Mexcian farmworkers in Vermont. The Trump administration moved the immigration debate to the political front burner in the 2018 elections, and federal agencies continue to crackdown on people who may be in the country illegally.
But Gómez García said the Middlebury event – held at the Unitarian church – helps affirm the common humanity between different cultures.
“As you notice we also have local volunteers who prepare coffee and treats and food, who are donating warm clothes,” she said. “So it always warms my heart. The fact that we come to Middlebury early December, near Christmas, always ratifies my faith in humankind.”
"Luis," a young farmworker who lives in Cornwall, has worked here for 14 years. But he’s not in the country legally, so he doesn’t want his real name used. He’s at the Middlebury consulate, not to get help with his passport or paperwork, but for the food.
“So I’m here to, like, eat something,” he said. “And just like, this is going to be my breakfast if I can get something here. So yeah, that’s what I’m planning for.”
Luis drove to Middlebury. He got his license several years ago under a Vermont law that allows undocumented people to get a driver’s privilege card.
“You can’t live without [a] car. People live on cars,” he said, citing a truism of life in Vermont. “You know, you don’t have the grocery store like two-three minutes away, or five minutes away. You know, you got it like 10 minutes away — but driving.”
So he’s concerned about allegations outlined in a recent federal lawsuit that officials at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles turned over names and identification information to agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Luis said it may give people something to "think about more" as far as "trying to get a license if the information goes to another place."
The Mexican consulate is also concerned about the allegations in the lawsuit, but Gómez García is careful not to criticize U.S. policy.
“I understand that this might be yet another expression of further enforcement of immigration regulations, internal information-sharing between agencies,” she said. “But to the extent that it affects Mexican citizens, we are truly concerned, and we are following the story quite closely.”
One way to deal with undocumented workers and the need for labor on Vermont farms would be some kind of guest worker program that would allow people to be here legally, a proposal backed by Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Gómez García pointed out that the remedy there lies with the U.S. Congress.