For Undocumented Workers On Vermont Farms, 2017 Was A Year Filled With Anxiety

Jan 5, 2018

An escalation in immigration enforcement over the past year has brought a new level of anxiety for the several thousand migrant farm workers living in Vermont.

For the first time since 2010, arrests and detentions by the U.S. Border Patrol increased in Vermont, New Hampshire and northeastern New York last year.

The workers – many of them undocumented – are critically important to the state’s farm economy. To give you a sense of how important, consider that twice a year the Mexican government comes to a Vermont farm community to help hundreds of its citizens with financial and legal advice, and to issue passports and other government documents.

About 140 mostly undocumented workers turned out at a church meeting hall in Middlebury on a recent Saturday to share a warm meal with friends and to meet with their government officials.

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC

Jose Aguilar had come over from New Hampshire to renew his passport. Our interpreter, Chris Urban, asked him when he wants to head home to Mexico. Aguilar laughs. “Tomorrow morning,” he said, “because it will be late today.”

Aguilar – who likes to practice his English – joked that he can’t leave for his home in Mexico right away because there’s a long line to get his passport renewed. But he’s not going home. And when asked why he’s in New England, and he gave the same answer as the other workers here.

“I work on the farm with the cows,” he said. “Just working, and working hard!”     

Aguilar slipped back to Spanish as he talks about how living conditions for his family in Mexico, their housing – even their basic nutrition — has improved with the remittances he sends home.

“Yes," he said.

"The sacrifice is worth it because here we can achieve what we could never achieve in Mexico." — dairy worker Jose Aguilar

So the work is steady, the pay helps their families. But most of the farm workers interviewed in Middlebury said the stress of living while undocumented has increased over the last year.

Felipe – who did not want his last name used — works on a large dairy farm in Bristol with about a dozen other Mexicans.

“Because of Trump’s immigration laws, one walks around with a bit more fear and is a bit more nervous to leave the house and go out,” he said.

Julia Doucet, a nurse with the Open Door clinic in Addison County, was coordinating free health screenings for the migrants at the Middlebury meeting. She said the increased stress can affect physical and mental health.

Nurse Julia Doucet, seen here at a health screening for migrant workers in Middlebury, says a recent survey found many experienced more anxiety and stress over the past year.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

"Chronic stress and anxiety definitely has a direct correlation to poor health outcomes,” she said. “When your nervous system is at that high alert all the time, you can have trouble sleeping, you can have depression, some serious anxiety, and all those play into both negative health and negative mental health.”

Doucet said the clinic recently surveyed about 100 migrant workers to gauge their current level of stress over the past year.

"80 percent of the people that we interviewed felt either more scared, or a lot more scared, more anxious or a lot more anxious about going out in public places." — Julia Doucet, the Open Door clinic

“And that was one of the questions that we had, is how has the new administration has affected their level of stress, their anxiety, and their fear, and their sadness,” she said.

“And we found that pretty much 80 percent of the people that we interviewed felt either more scared, or a lot more scared, more anxious or a lot more anxious about going out in public places, and doing social events; and they were somewhat more anxious about getting health care as well.”

On a farm with sweeping views of the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east, dairy farmer Rob Hunt is focused on a broken piece of machinery, but also the fate of his workforce.

He was working on a “silage facer” when I caught up to him. It’s device that uses metal teeth to chew through piles of feed to expose a fresh layer for the cows.

“That’s pretty hard, and this machine works,” he said. “And like anything, it wears out.”

Hunt admitted he’s much more passionate about his cows than his machinery. And he said the Mexicans he’s hired over the last decade to milk and care for his herd have been crucial to the success of his West Addison, Vermont, farm.

So he’s worried about them getting stopped or deported.

“For me, I work with these guys every day. I know where they’re from. How many kids they have. I know a lot about them,” he said. “So I’m concerned about what happens to them, their safety and security. But also, if they swoop in and they clean out my workforce, my wife and I can’t run this place by ourselves. So, yeah, the concern is real.”

"I'm concerned about what happens to them, their safety and security. But also, if they swoop in and they clean out my workforce, my wife and I can't run this place by ourselves." — Rob Hunt, dairy farmer

Hunt said the best solution would be some sort of guest worker program that would allow people to be here legally.

He said he pays his workers as much or more than Americans, if you include the housing, TV, utilities and transportation he provides. But he can’t find U.S. workers to fill the positions:

“There’s always a shortage of American labor on farms," Hunt explains. "Our day starts at 2:30 in the morning. And that eliminates about 75 percent of the American population right there.”

Add the fact cows have to be milked 365 days a year, in conditions that can be hot, cold, muddy and smelly:  “And that pretty much eliminates the last 5 percent of the American population,” he said.

Like Hunt, Jose Aguilar, who’s been waiting for his new passport at the Middlebury mobile consulate, would also like to see Mexican workers be able to come here under a guest worker permit. That way, he could travel back and forth to Mexico to see his family without fear.

And to the question of if he's taking a job that an American would want?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s hard because sometimes we need to work in the night. And some Americans, they can’t do that. It’s a lot of hours, like 12, 14 a day; sometimes [we] don’t have a day off. I think they can do it for a few days, but after a while they would be broke up.”

He laughed at his own observation. “That’s funny but it’s true.”

Aguilar said if he could talk to people making the immigration laws, he would tell them most immigrants are not criminals or bad people. They just want the opportunity to support a family and live a normal life.

WATCH — Dec. 2016: "Despite Federal Guidelines, Indiscriminate Immigration Arrests Still Occur In Vermont" (VPR)

Mexicans and other migrants from Central America have worked on Vermont farms for more than a decade. And some of them have stayed that long.

Hugo, who did not want his last name published, has lived in Vermont, on and off for almost 20 years. He said people here have opened their doors to migrant workers. But he’s worried about the future.

“I came to Vermont when I was 19 years old and I’m 38 years old. It’s just about half my life. So of course, I’m thinking: Should I just stay?” he said. “I hope to God no one comes to get us or deport us. I’ve been here a long time.” 

This report is part of a series called "Facing Change." It comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region.