(HOST) We’ve heard a lot lately about the plight of illegal immigrants working in Vermont agriculture, but commentator Bill Shutkin says that not all immigrant workers are illegal – and they’re not all found on the farm.
(SHUTKIN) It was early Sunday morning a few weeks ago when I passed a local motel and saw, out of the corner of my eye, three people duck into a large green van with the markings of a local resort on the door. Sunlight reflected off the wet blacktop, but the air was cold. In spite of this, the three were so lightly dressed that they had wrapped themselves up in blankets to ward off the chill. They looked disoriented, like refugees at some remote border crossing.
But they were not refugees; they were part-time Vermonters, as essential to Vermont’s economy as their seasonal counterparts – tourists and second-home owners – whose hotel rooms they clean, groceries they bag and tables they wait. They’re West Indians, South Americans, Africans, Vietnamese and Bosnians. They work hard, provide for their families and practice religion. Many come from traditional agricultural societies going back centuries.
And yet, as seasonal workers who often lack the most basic financial and educational resources, they’re an orphaned class, even here in egalitarian Vermont. Unlike the thousands of illegal immigrants who work on the state’s dairy farms, resort and service industry staff qualify for the guest worker program that allows foreign nationals to hold seasonal jobs. Even so, many can only manage to eek out a marginal living. Some sleep on floors in poorly heated rooms. And without their own transport in a heavily auto-dependent state, they have to be shuttled from place to place.
Today, immigrants in the U.S. make up about 12 percent of the total population, more than double what it was just 50 years ago. And they’re more visible than ever, having leap-frogged the traditional gateway cities like New York and Los Angeles for new destinations: the rural south, the Midwest. Vermont.
Suddenly immigrants are everywhere. But then again, they always have been. We’re a nation of newcomers, save for the Native Americans whose plight reminds us that the claim to being here first guarantees nothing.
And isn’t that the problem? Though most of us have been here just a few generations, we act as if we own the joint. Yet, immigrants have always fueled the culture, made it vital. A century ago it was in big cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Today, it’s in the metro areas of states like North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire. As go the immigrants, so goes the action.
I think of those three people clutching blankets to stay warm on their early morning commute and I wish we could do better. As a state known for its homogeneity and aging population, I would think that Vermonters would eagerly embrace new immigrants and the new energy they bring with them.
In my vision for Vermont’s future, honest work will be rewarded with pay sufficient to meet basic needs. Willing workers, of every color and creed, will be welcome and second class citizenship will be yesterday’s problem.
Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.