Leahy may sponsor Mexican worker legal status legislation

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(Host) If Congress remains stalemated on an immigration reform bill, Senator Patrick Leahy says he may sponsor legislation that provides a new legal status for thousands of Mexican workers who are employed on dairy farms in Vermont.

The Vermont Farm Bureau strongly supports the approach, and says the immigration issue is emerging as a top priority for many Vermont farmers.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) There’s a growing crisis developing on a number of Vermont dairy farms. There aren’t enough workers to keep the farms operating and that’s a major reason why the Vermont Farm Bureau is actively involved in the national immigration debate.

It’s estimated that there are roughly 2000 undocumented Mexican workers employed on Vermont dairy farms. Officials say these workers are vital to the future of state’s dairy industry.

Jackie Folsom is the director of the Vermont Farm Bureau. Her family was forced to sell its 65 dairy cows several days ago because they couldn’t hire enough workers to help run their farm.

(Folson) “That isn’t to say that the immigration issue would affect our farm. But just on a small farm like that, not having help has caused a financial problem for us. So if you multiply that by the farms that are out there that actually are needing assistance and laborers, it’s a huge issue.”

(Kinzel) Folsom says the current situation unfairly places farmers in the very difficult position of trying to determine the legal status of the Mexican workers.

(Folson) “Farmers hire folks. We’re no different that any other business. You want to see a Social Security card and you fill out all the paperwork. At that point in time, just as with any other business, farmers don’t have to determine if the paperwork is real or fake or anything else. You don’t do that at IBM. You don’t do that at National Life. That’s how businesses are run.”

(Kinzel) Senator Leahy says he’d like to see action on a scaled down immigration bill that would provide farm workers with a special visa because the status quo is unacceptable for farmers, the illegal workers and the law enforcement community.

(Leahy) “The tax laws aren’t being followed. The criminal laws obviously aren’t being followed. Worker laws aren’t being followed. Let’s make it possible so the rules apply to everybody.”

(Kinzel) But Leahy isn’t certain that he can persuade the sponsors of the immigration bill to revisit this issue any time soon:

(Leahy) “This was accepted by the Senate. I think it is not controversial. I think it is something that if we were to have separate immigration bills, we could pass this. What I don’t know is whether the people who were involved in the overall immigration bill, whether they feel that they’ve been burned so badly that they don’t want to bring up another one.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he hopes to have a better idea about the possibility of advancing a separate immigration bill later this month.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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