Farmers Worried About Immigration Fines

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(Host) Vermont dairy farmers are waiting to find out if they’ll face fines or enforcement action after a federal immigration crackdown was launched last month.

Meanwhile, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy wants to change federal labor rules to allow farmers to employ migrant workers.

VPR’s John Dillon has this report:

(Dillon) Many farms in Vermont employ migrant workers from Mexico, and the federal enforcement effort is aimed at discovering if those employees are here legally.

Four farms received subpoenas to produce employment records that would show a worker’s legal status – an enforcement crackdown that shocked the dairy community. Philip Boyle is a lawyer who represents some of the farms.

(Boyle) "The traditional pattern of reaction has been sort of frustration, anxiety and more or less silence. And what I’ve seen in the past few weeks, those similar patterns, but instead of the silence we’ve been seeing some anger. And there’s really nothing they can do. At the end of the day they’re trying to run their businesses and they need these employees."

(Dillon) Two of the farmers involved declined to be interviewed.

Boyle said some farmers have asked for an extension to comply with the federal subpoenas for employment records. He said others have turned over the documents.

(Boyle) "Those that have responded to the subpoenas, this is now becoming a waiting game where the response to the subpoenas may come within a week, may come in nine months, it may not come at all. It depends on what kinds of enforcement priority they want to put on these dairy farmers. It’s quite possible we won’t see any kind of response at all until we see some kind of meaningful immigration reform."

(Dillon) Farmers have said that they’ve turned to migrant labor because American citizens don’t want to work in the dairy barn. Amanda St. Pierre farms in Richford with her family.

(St. Pierre) "Just finding people to work in these jobs is a challenge because it’s not a popular type of work. It’s very labor intensive; you’re out in the cold temperatures, you’re out in the hot temperatures. I think that really is a challenge and it affects every size farm, not just the large but every-sized farms."

(Dillon) St. Pierre says one solution is for the government to allow the migrant dairy workers to enter the country under a guest worker program.

This program allows workers to come to the U.S. on a seasonal basis.

At a recent hearing in Washington, Senator Patrick Leahy pressed the Obama Administration to allow dairy workers to enter the country legally.

(Leahy) "We do hire temporary workers in Vermont for apple picking and things like that. Unfortunately, in dairy farms, you need them year ‘round. You can’t tell the cows we’ll be back to milk you in six months. It doesn’t work that way. So the result is that many dairy farmers are forced to choose between their livelihood and adhering faithfully to our immigration laws."

(Dillon) But immigration can be a polarizing issue in Washington. Soon after Leahy spoke, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions raised some questions about Leahy’s proposal.

(Sessions) "The idea that we would call a temporary worker program, a program in which people come for multiple years with their families with the ability to extend is really an immigration policy – and puts us in a very difficult position."

(Dillon) Farmers said they’re getting frustrated waiting for Washington. They said they hope Congress tackles the immigration issue before federal agents serve more subpoenas on dairy farms.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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