Fear on the farm: In Vermont, migrant dairy workers and their bosses worry about Trump

Vermont's dairy industry depends on migrant labour to keep the milk flowing. Now, fears of a crackdown by the Trump administration on illegal immigrants has many farm workers living in fear, and farmers are worried they could lose a major part of their workforce.

Who will keep the milk flowing in Vermont if U.S. president carries out his deportation threats?

Miguel Alcudia was detained in September for having an expired visa. He's now facing a deportation hearing and says fear has increased on farms under the Trump administration. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

The milk parlour inside a dairy farm in central Vermont is a frenzy of activity. The sound of hooves on the concrete floor mixes with the clang of pumps and hoses as farm workers hurry to milk this batch of cows before the next cycles through.

The workers yell out to each other in Spanish above the noise. There's little downtime in their 14-hour day.

They are all from Mexico and are in the United States illegally. Some entered the country on temporary visas, but those have expired. Now they fear immigration enforcement officers are closing in.

"At first I didn't think it would get to what it is now, but now I don't feel safe," says one of the workers, who didn't want his name used. "Now we are just waiting to be deported any time."

The fear has changed their routines. They go straight home after work. If they run errands, it's at night, when they think it's less likely that immigration agents will be out.
A farm worker carries a calf. Some workers say fear of deportation has forced them to change their daily routines. They run errands less frequently, hoping to decrease the chance they'll be detained. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"Before, I would go out more often. We would go and play soccer with friends from other farms, and you wouldn't hear anything about immigration officers," said another worker. "Things were calmer, until the new president was elected."

Fear of deportation has always been part of the job for these workers, who came from Mexico in the last five years hoping for a better life. During Barack Obama's administration more than 2.5 million people were deported nationwide.

But their fears have been heightened by President Donald Trump — first by his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric and his threats to deport millions of illegal immigrants. then by his executive orders, which called for more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.

There is no place where we can feel safe, because wherever we go there could be immigration officers.-— An illegal farm worker

"There is no place where we can feel safe, because wherever we go there could be immigration officers," the second worker said.

While Trump has said his focus is on illegal immigrants with criminal records, workers' rights groups say the new guidelines issued in February by the Department of Homeland Security expand the definition of criminality, to go beyond convictions and include suspicion of committing a crime.
Will Lambek, an activist with Migrant Justice, says new guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security expand the definition of criminal behaviour, widening the net that can be cast by immigration agents. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"The nominal protections that had existed under the Obama administration have pretty much been destroyed," said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, a human rights group.

In March alone, Lambek says, at least half a dozen farm workers were arrested in Vermont. In one case Migrant Justice says a worker was on his way to court to have a drunk driving charge dismissed when ICE agents picked him up.

"People are reading in the news every day about detentions and deportations, and that creates a climate where people are very reluctant to leave their farm or to leave their home," Lambek said.

Farmers fear losing workers

Farmers fear the majority of their workforce could suddenly disappear. At the farm in central Vermont, the farmer also didn't want to be identified, out of concern for his workers.

He said he would hire domestically if he could, but many Americans don't want to do the work.

"We've been trained as a society that manual labour is looked down upon. so Americans have grown up thinking you can't do manual labour, and won't do it," said the farmer, who we'll call Scott.

According to a 2015 study by Texas A&M University for the National Milk Producers Federation, immigrant labour makes up 51 per cent of the dairy industry's workforce. Removing those workers, the report says, would lead to milk prices increasing 90 per cent and cost the U.S. economy more than $32 billion.

'Doing necessary work'

Scott says that economic picture is missing from the current debate.

"These people are here, working hard, doing necessary work, paying taxes and no recognition in them being labelled as criminals," he said.

For farm worker Miguel Alcudia, arrest and deportation are not a figment of an anxious imagination. He was arrested in September and held for three weeks by ICE. He's awaiting a deportation hearing.

While his arrest took place during Obama's tenure, he says the fear has increased under Trump. 
Dairy farmer Hans Vorsteveld says fears over mass deportations are overblown. He thinks the economic impact of deporting farm workers should outweigh the Trump administration's desire to crack down on illegal immigration. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

"The community is feeling intimidated and is going back to the shadows," Alcudia said.

Alcudia works at Vorsteveld Farm, where the owner and farmer Hans Vorsteveld says, despite Alcudia's situation, the concerns amongst workers and fellow farmers are unfounded.

"Because I don't think it's going to happen. I think it would disrupt the economy tremendously," he said.

He's not going to be stupid and kick everybody out.— Farmer Hans Vorsteveld has faith in the president

Vorsteveld is a Trump supporter, though as a non-citizen he wasn't able to vote for him.

"I agree with him as far as upholding the law. I think (Trump) is humane enough, or he's not going to be stupid and kick everybody out," Vorsteveld said.

Many farmers say the solution is to offer work visas for dairy workers. While many agricultural workers are eligible for temporary visas under the H2-A program, that doesn't work for the dairy industry, says Joe Tisbert, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau.

"Dairy is a year-round occupation so they need workers year-round, you can't have them come for 10 months and then have no one here," he said.

He's been to Washington to lobby on the issue and says a balance must be struck between removing criminal illegal immigrants and protecting the economic interests of farmers.

"I would love to have secure borders that has real immigration reform and we can get the workers into our country that we need to help our farmers," Tisbert said.
A worker milks a cow at a farm in central Vermont. The dairy industry in the state relies heavily on migrant labour and there are concerns a crackdown in illegal immigration could deplete the workforce. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

For Lambek of Migrant Justice, work visas aren't the panacea. He says many temporary worker programs are rife with abuse. Workers are exploited because their status is tied to their job.

"What we want to see is full and permanent legal protection for all immigrants in this country," he said.

That's what the workers here want too.

"Give us an opportunity to be here, to work, and if there is the possibility of doing it legally in any way, so that we don't have to cross illegally, we just want to work" one worker said.

Trump puzzles another worker. "I don't know, why is he against Mexicans when we are working for him?" the worker asked.


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.