By Zach Despart
Addison County dairy farmers talking last week with Congressman Peter Welch said a new immigration bill is vital to meeting their labor needs, as farms increasingly rely on immigrant workers.
"One of the quickest ways to kill the dairy industry is to have no labor," said Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury. "It's a 24/7 job."
Though the vast majority of foreign agricultural laborers work on dairies, there is no temporary visa program for dairy laborers. Therefore, foreign workers have to obtain permanent resident status to legally work on a dairy farms.
"It's most important for us that dairy be a legal category for temporary workers," said Clark Hinsdale of Nordic Farm in Charlotte, who is also president of the Vermont Farm Bureau. "It's legal for apple and vegetable pickers, but not for dairy workers year round."
Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said at the Nov. 4 meeting at Phoenix Feeds and Nutrition in New Haven that he believed a new immigration bill could be passed, though he acknowledged that hyper-partisanship in Congress has ground both the House and Senate to a halt.
"Even Congress is embarrassed by how few things get done," Welch said.
GRIDLOCK STALLS BILLS
With Congress paralyzed much of this fall over negotiations to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded and also raise the debt ceiling, little time has been left for other key issues, such as a new farm bill and comprehensive immigration reform.
A conference committee convened for the first time Oct. 30 to attempt to reconcile differences in Senate and House versions of a new farm bill.
Efforts to pass a new immigration bill have completely stalled.
The Senate passed an immigration reform bill June 27, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shepherded the bill through the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, to the floor of the Senate, where it passed 68-32. Vermont's other U.S. senator, Independent Bernie Sanders, also voted for the bill.
The House of Representatives has taken no action on that bill. Welch is one of 189 sponsors of a House immigration bill, though that legislation has not been put to a vote.
The Senate bill would create a new "Blue Card" system that would grant temporary legal status to undocumented immigrant laborers who can demonstrate they have been working in agriculture in the United States. Workers could then apply for legal permanent resident status.
A major sticking point in negotiations has been a so-called "path to citizenship" -- whether the bill would allow migrant workers who entered this country illegally to eventually become U.S. citizens. Welch supports a path to citizenship.
"After the solution to the recent government shutdown, the president said that finishing immigration reform is one of his top three priorities in the immediate future," said David Carle, the communications director for Leahy. "It's unclear at this point when, if at all, House leaders will respond."
This is not the first time in recent years that a major immigration bill has fallen apart. A similar bill was introduced in May 2007 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It was publicly supported by President George Bush. After a month of debate and amendments, senators could not find consensus and the bill was never voted on by the whole body. Similar efforts had failed in 2005 and 2006.
Welch praised the bipartisan 2007 effort.
"George Bush had a decent immigration bill," Welch said.
Peter Conlon, who helps farmers throughout the Northeast connect with foreign laborers in his job with Agri-Placement Services, supports the passage of the 2013 Senate bill.
"It will provide a stable, reliable workforce in the future," Conlon said. "The bill provides a way for workers to stay here permanently -- the Blue Card program rewards immigrant workers for continuing to work in agriculture."
Currently, many farms use the H2A visa program to meet their labor needs. This program is only for temporary, seasonal work. While this requirement is not an issue for orchardists and fruit farms, dairy is a year-round enterprise, and therefore is ineligible for the program.
Hinsdale said he favored a program that would allow workers to stay for several years, and move freely between the United States and their home countries.
Conlon called the H2A visa program a "bureaucratic nightmare," and said it is difficult for farmers to use because it often takes an exorbitant amount of time for applications to be processed.
"The Blue Card program will by far work better," Foster said.
THE INVISIBLE WORKFORCE
It is difficult to calculate how many immigrant workers are in Vermont or Addison County currently. The state Agency of Agriculture does not keep records of immigrant workers here. Conlon estimates there are 1,200-1,500 statewide. He said the laborers he works with are mostly from Mexico and Guatemala.
Robby Salorio of the Vermont Migrant Education Program (VMEP), a division of the state Agency of Education, said that office estimates there are around 1,200 full-time migrant workers in Vermont, most of whom work full-time on dairy farms.
VMEP provides education resources to families of migrant workers. It does not verify the legal status of these workers.
Research conducted in 2012 by the University of Vermont extension determined there are around 1,250 Latino migrant workers in Vermont, 95 percent of whom worked on dairies. Seventeen percent of dairies in the state employed foreign laborers, including 61 in Addison County. Addison County also had the highest number of Latino farm laborers, with 253.
Hinsdale said farmers have no tools to determine if workers are legal or not.
"We're supposed to take papers at face value," Hinsdale said. "We do not know if they're real -- it's like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' for immigrant workers."
There is no online database for famers to verify the legitimacy of green cards, Social Security cards and other documents that laborers present.
"The INS can get on a computer and check that, but we can't," Hinsdale said. "I've had farmers express frustration at tax time when they find out that Social Security cards are invalid after they've sent the IRS a bunch of money."
Hinsdale said there have also been instances where immigration officials have detained workers from Vermont farms, though this does not happen often.
"All this would go away with an e-verifiable program," Hinsdale said. "Workers just want to work and be able to send money home."
Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury employs four Mexican nationals, Foster said.
"Since they started, the quality of milk production has gone up," Foster said. "Animals like consistency."
Foster said his family has a close relationship with the immigrant workers. A few years ago Foster's cousin's daughter married one of their Mexican employees. The couple now lives in Mexico City.
"We're an international family now," Foster said.
Foster described the employment of foreign laborers by U.S. farms "the best foreign aid program we have," noting that workers can send remittances back to their families to build homes and send their children through schools.
Foster acknowledged the hardship that his employees face when trying to travel back home. He said he has heard of other farmers losing foreign workers because they are denied re-entry into the United States, but so far that has not happened to any of his employees.
For Foster, a program that would issue foreign agricultural laborers unambiguous legal status is a no-brainer.
"There's no reason with today's technology you can't ID someone and let them move back and forth across the border freely," Foster said.
Foster said he supports the work that Vermont's Congressional delegation is doing to get this bill passed.
"Our delegation is very supportive; we're very fortunate," Foster said.
Foster said that the foreign nationals working on his farm don't want American citizenship -- rather, they just want to be able to cross the border freely.
"Some of the workers go back and build homes for their families, but it's tragic they can't go back," Foster said.
The paltry labor force in Vermont has made foreign labor a necessity. The unemployment rate in Addison County, calculated by the Vermont Department of Labor in August, is 3.8 percent. This is less than the state unemployment rate of 3.9 percent and half of the nationwide rate of 7.3 percent.
And, the state is getting older -- and fast. According to statistics compiled from the 2010 U.S. Census, Vermont's median age is 41.2, second to only Maine.
"Vermont and other Northeastern states are aging rapidly," Conlon said. "It's not that people don't want to do this work, there are just fewer people."
Conlon said that farms have come to depend on immigrant labor, and that is not going to change.
"People who are willing to do the job aren't available," Foster said.