What happens to the Vermont dairy industry if migrant workers are deported? That was the question being answered at a community forum in Hardwick on Wednesday night.
It's complicated – that's one of the big takeaways to come out of Wednesday's forum at the Hazen School Library about the Vermont dairy economy and its migrant labor force.
A four-person panel discussed everything from the strains global economies put on Vermont dairy farmers to how those same systems create inhumane conditions for migrant workers.
For example, the only visa available to a migrant who wants to work on a farm in the United States is called an "H-2A." But that only allows for seasonal work — and running a dairy is a year-round operation.
Abel Luna, the campaign and education coordinator for Migrant Justice, told the crowd of about 30 people that this leaves a lot of room for mistreatment of these workers.
“The H-2A program is not a solution,” he said. “Changing one set of workers for another set of workers does not change the conditions workers are facing.”
Luna says he and others with Migrant Justice have urged Vermont policymakers to push for immigration reform in Washington.
"We need a more comprehensive immigration reform that really allows people to fully feel complete as human beings, and have the power to defend themselves,” he concluded.
Jon Lussier, who sat on the same panel in Hardwick, works closely with dairy farmers in the area, buying and selling cattle. He pushed back.
“Many, many, many farmers treat their workers tremendously; they provide good housing, they take them to stores,” Lussier said of his neighbors in Hardwick. “Farmers today know they have to do that, because if they lose that migrant help, they're out of business. Because the labor force in the state of Vermont is not there to take over their places.”
On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE – reported that immigration arrests were up by nearly 38 percent during President Trump’s first 100 days in office, compared to the same time period last year.
Steven Jones, who runs a dairy farm with his brother in Hyde Park with the help of migrant workers, attended the forum. He said despite the national uptick in deportations, things haven't changed much for his farm since Trump took office.
“Our workers were a little bit nervous, but now that we're six months in since he's been elected, it's kind of calmed down,” Jones said, wearing a blue baseball hat with his farm’s logo on it.
But event organizer Meredith Holtch says she met a farmer who did not even want this forum to happen in Hardwick.
“That farmer expressed fear nervousness to the extent that they were nervous about the forum being held here, because they just don't want to call any attention to their farm. That's the extent of how nervous they are,” Holtch said.
Louise Calderwood, an agricultural consultant and one of the panelists, said that while the threat of deportations has put stress on local workers and farmers, there have not been widespread immigration sweeps of Vermont’s dairy farms yet.
“We have seen an increase in looking at the paperwork around any sort of employment, but we have not seen any change yet in ICE activity,” she said after the discussion. “I do know that our dairy employees and farmers are monitoring this, but so far we haven’t seen this and that’s a good thing.”
In March, Vermont's delegation to Congress, along with Gov. Phil Scott, signed a letter to ICE saying that this is an urgent issue which affects the greater Vermont economy.