What's It Like To Be A Migrant Worker In Vermont?

Jun 9, 2017

If you drink Vermont milk, or eat Vermont apples or vegetables, it's likely that you have foreign workers to thank. But do you know any?

This month on Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast, we spend time with some of the members of the work force that keeps many of Vermont’s farms running. Some of these workers crossed the U.S. border through a legal checkpoint, and some crossed in secret.

Our goal is simple: to get a sense of what their lives are like.

And our inquiry is driven by a question from Hannah Lindner-Finlay, of Westminster West. 

"What is it like to be a migrant worker in Vermont?" — Hannah Lindner-Finlay, Westminster West

Hannah asked this question because she realized there was a whole part of Vermont’s story that she just doesn’t know much about.

“I grew up in Vermont and I never thought about migrant workers here,” says Hannah, who spent her childhood in Norwich. She recently moved back to Vermont after living out of state and working in education. And it wasn't until she saw her state with fresh eyes, Hannah says, that she began to wonder about residents like foreign workers. 

"Moving back to Vermont has been interesting, because as a kid I wasn't super aware of any diversity that was around me in Vermont," she says. "And I think both there is a little more in the area we've moved back to, and I'm just more aware of thinking about it."

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This episode is not meant to be an exhaustive account of Vermont’s migrant labor economy, or its challenges or shortcomings. Instead, we’re just going to meet a few people. And you’re going to hear pretty quickly that being a “migrant worker” is not a one-size-fits-all experience.

John Gooden, who works at Harlow Farm in Westminster, doesn’t even like that word, migrant.

“Migrant, it’s like you run away. And you have nowhere to stay,” he says. “They give us a little piece of paper, so if the cops stop us on the road, you can show the paper. And [they] say, ‘Oh, these guys are legal.’”

John is authorized to work at this organic farm — he has an H-2A visa, which allows for foreign workers to do seasonal agricultural work. And as long as he doesn’t stay past its expiration date, he’s on solid legal ground. Immigrants who work here year-round, without authorization, aren’t so secure — especially these days.  

Tense times

It's not as if life as an immigrant was easy under President Obama. At times he was called "Deporter in Chief" — but in the last few years of his administration, deportations decreased as the policy shifted to focus on "felons, not families."

Now, that trend is reversing.

"Brave Little State" is VPR's people-powered journalism podcast.
Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

President Trump seems to be holding to his campaign promise: deportations of immigrants who have committed no crimes other than being here illegally have doubled since his presidency began (and tripled in New England), over the same period last year.

In March, Vermont passed a law designed to keep state and local police from helping with this federal crackdown. 

“The fear and anxiety that many are facing, whether it's in the agricultural community, or whether it's in other parts of the state, is real, and we seek to calm those fears and alleviate that,” Gov. Phil Scott said about the bill.

That same month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, arrested three immigration activists in Burlington.

One of them, a farmworker named Cesar Alex Carillo, was eventually sent back to Mexico under a “voluntary departure order,” leaving behind his wife and daughter.

The state is making a contingency plan in the event that large numbers of migrant workers get deported. But so far, Vermont farmers haven’t seen any deportation raids

Gregorio

Recent estimates suggest there are around 1,400 foreign-born Latino workers and their families here. And the people we spoke with made anywhere from $10 to $12 an hour.  

One of them, Gregorio, says people in his community are on edge right now. Some are scared to go out in public to go grocery shopping, or even to answer a knock at the door.

“Yes, there's some fear now,” he said recently. “Before no, but now, yes.”

We’re not using Gregorio’s last name, to protect his identity. We’re not identifying the dairy farm where he works, either. That’s because Gregorio is working here without authorization.

When he was 20 years old, Gregorio left his home in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and spent $4,500 to cross the border into the U.S. He walked for a week to get to a safe house in Tuscon, Arizona.

“The situation was difficult in Mexico,” Gregorio says. “I wanted to have a better life. And there weren't opportunities for us there. There was no work.”

That was four years ago. Now he’s here, on this farm in central Vermont, spending his early 20s working 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week.

When he was 20 years old, Gregorio left his home in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and spent $4,500 to cross the border into the U.S. Four years later, he's on this dairy, working 72 hours a week, and living with six coworkers on the farm property.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Gregorio births calves almost every day, and helps in the milking parlor. He gets an hour-long break around dinnertime, and then he's back on again until midnight.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Gregorio is still groggy-eyed with sleep.  He checks the soccer scores on his smartphone before his shift starts at noon.

He lives with six coworkers in a old farmhouse right next to the dairy barn. Inside, it feels a bit like a college frat house — except no one here has much time for fraternizing. Here, it's all work. The entryway is full of well-worn rubber boots, and there are work garments hanging to dry on the porch.                 

The living room windows are covered with dark fabric to block the light, because many in the house work night-shifts. There's a TV, a dart board, and a couch, covered in laundry and several guitars.

The 72-hour work-week leaves almost no time for getting off the farm property.

“I'd like to leave to play soccer. But when I'm free, the others are working, and when others are free, I'm working,” Gregorio says. “So it's only on Saturday afternoons when I get to play soccer.”

Saturdays are his days off.

“Saturdays I don't do anything on the farm. I'm just here at the house, listening to music, talking to my mom on the phone, sometimes, not every week.”

Overall, Gregorio says he likes living in Vermont. The money is far more than he could make in Mexico. He says he's grown accustomed to the daily routines. But he says it’s hard being stuck on the farm.

The living room windows in the farmhouse are covered, because many in the house work night shifts, and sleep during the day.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

“We're only here to work. It's isolating, to always have to be here, at the ranch. The situation doesn't permit us to visit cities here in the U.S., to interact with society, but I think it's part of our life — to be isolated.”

Gregorio says he's made peace with this.

“It’s worth it, because many friends of my age in Mexico, they have family, they have kids and it's really hard. They don’t have money. They tell me that you’re here, you have good opportunities, to make a house, to do things,” he says. “Yes, but, also, I sacrificed everything to be here. They have nothing, because they haven’t sacrificed anything. I sacrificed my youth.

“There are many things I'd like back at home: fishing, parties, fun; during all this, I stayed here.”

Gregorio says it's too stressful to invest much in a life in the U.S. — he could lose everything in a second.

“We’re illegals,” he says. “So in any moment, immigration could detain me, and send me to Mexico."

Instead, he lives life so that if he's deported, the only thing he'll lose is the job, and the only thing he'll take with him are his clothes. 

_

Francisco

But just a half-mile down the road, Gregorio's coworker, Francisco, is invested here. But he didn’t expect that to happen when he first came to the U.S.

“When I left my country, my plan was to spend a year in the U.S.,” he says. “I was studying to be a lawyer in a Mexican university. I wanted to be independent from my family. I wanted to work for one year and to save enough money to finish the three years I had left in school.”

But one year turned into 10, and instead of practicing law, Francisco is working on the same farm as Gregorio. Francisco isn't his real name — we've changed it to protect his privacy.

Part of the reason Francisco is still here is that he met someone. Ten years ago, shortly after arriving in rural New York, where he found work on a dairy farm, he fell in love and started a family.

“It was never my plan to form a family here, but now I have a family, and that's ones of the reasons why I'm here, why I stayed,” he says.

Francisco has an 8-year-old daughter now, and he feels pretty comfortable in Vermont . But it was a long road to get to this point. He says the hardest thing about coming to a new country and learning an entirely new job  was doing all of that without knowing English.

“When you don't understand the language, you feel isolated,” Francisco says. “You feel isolated because all the owners, the people we worked for, they can't explain anything to you, they can't tell you anything or ask you anything. And we also couldn’t communicate with them. The situation made me feel isolated, even depressed.”

Imagine showing up to your first day of work and not understanding your boss.

“When they tried to explain things with signs, it made me depressed and angry. Because when someone tries to explain something like this, they think you're ignorant or that you know nothing,” Francisco says. “And that was something that motivated me extra to try to learn the language.

Francisco did eventually teach himself some English — but he still wanted to do his interview in Spanish.

_

He says that when he first got here and was living in rural New York, he sometimes felt disrespected. But he heard worse things about Vermont.

“I had a friend who had been here longer than me, he always said that when people went to stores in Vermont — in Bennington, to be specific — ICE would grab people from there," he says. "They picked people up in stores, or on one occasion they grabbed someone from a hospital. So he gave the impression that Vermont was a difficult place for immigrants to live. That if you were in Vermont, you would surely get grabbed by immigration and sent back to Mexico.”

And it turned out, that happened to Francisco too — almost.

Here’s how it happened. Even though Bennington had a bad reputation, Francisco ended up moving there, because that’s where his girlfriend lived. She’s his wife now, she’s a Vermonter — he met her at the wire transfer company where she worked.

So one day in 2009, Francisco says the Bennington police came to their apartment. What happened next wasn’t uncommon in those early years of the Obama administration.

"We immigrants, they have us in a position where whatever error that we might commit, that means you're not good, you're not good people." — Francisco

We only have Francisco's account of what happened that day, but basically, he says the police came because they’d gotten a call from neighbors who were concerned that his daughter was crying. (Francisco says there was a Department for Children and Families case open, which was later closed.)

Nothing came of that, but the police told Francisco they had a few more questions for him, and wanted to take him down to the station. It would just take 45 minutes, they said. He agreed.

At the station, the police questioned him about his immigration status, and then locked him in a cell for about three hours. Francisco says he later realized that's exactly how long it takes for ICE officials to drive down from their office in Swanton.

ICE arrived, and then brought him back to Swanton for more questioning. Ultimately they placed him in a detention facility in Buffalo, New York.

“This month and a half, was, I think the most difficult of all my life,” Francisco says.

At the time his daughter was 2 years old, and Francisco knew if he were deported, he would be forbidden from reentering the US for 10 years.

“So I was thinking what would happen in this 10-year window, obviously I could bring my daughter to Mexico [to visit], but it's not the same as seeing her every day. Just two or three times a year. So, that's what killed me, mentally, emotionally — that I couldn’t know what was going to happen. In that month I only slept one or two hours a night, because I was thinking about what might happen, and I couldn't sleep.”

In the end, Francisco got help from an immigration lawyer and letters of support from the community, and a judge stayed his deportation.

And even though Francisco is married now, and he says he’s authorized to work here, he still doesn't have the same rights as a US citizen:

“Yeah, I’m secure. I can never be 100 percent secure, because with the new president, anything can happen,” he says. “I still always act with caution in everything I do, because we immigrants, they have us in a position where whatever error that we might commit, that means you’re not good, you’re not good people. So I always try to be — how should I say this? — as careful as possible in everything I do … To put it simply, you always have to be an example, I suppose."

Marce

But for some at the same farm, being an immigrant isn't as fraught with risk.

Though Marce faced a different set of challenges when he first arrived in central Vermont:

“The farm manager came up to me and asked me how I wanted to be referred to. I said, ‘I prefer that you call me a man, rather than a woman.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, well here the work is long and it's for men.’ And I said to myself, ‘I like the work.’”

Marce says he was born in a woman's body, but his identity is as a man. He says that he's always been open with his family about this, and they've accepted and loved him.

“And I have always done men’s work,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like a chore to me. I practically spent my youth on a ranch, with my parents and sisters, so I’m not scared of the work here. I like it.”

And unlike many other Vermont dairy workers born in Mexico, Marce actually has legal authorization to work in the U.S. — for the whole year, not just seasonally.

He says that some of his friends have speculated that he was granted the authorization because of his gender identity. 

“My friends told me maybe it’s because here they help people of my sex — of my preferences, you could say. They say maybe that’s why the immigration officials gave me the permit,  because in my country it's not accepted — well, just barely. Whereas here in the U.S. it’s more accepted. So perhaps this is why they gave me papers. That's what many people have told me,” Marce says.

"The farm manager came up to me and asked me how I wanted to be referred to. I said, 'I prefer that you call me a man, rather than a woman.'" — Marce

Regardless, he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. He says he likes living in Vermont — the clean air, being in nature, working with animals.

Like Gregorio, Marce came to the U.S. to support family back home — his two younger siblings, who are studying in school.

“I miss my family, but they are the reason I'm here,” he says. “When you live in a rural area, it's hard to get higher-level learning. So I'm doing this for my siblings. I’m here to help them have the chance to study what they want.”

Marce also has a partner back home — he calls her his wife — and they talk every day.

“I get to talk to her when I finish working — she’s there in the video calls — so I don’t miss her too much. Maybe you miss your family a little bit more than if they were there in person, but not as much because we talk every day,” he says. “Then there are times where suddenly, you get sad for a few moments, but outside of that, it’s all good.”

Marce says he’ll try to get his authorization permit renewed in September. But Gregorio and Francisco’s plans — and their hearts — are back in Mexico. Gregorio is sending money to a savings account to help his parents coffee farm back home. And Francisco says when their daughter grows up, he and his wife want to move there.

Gerald

Further south, at Harlow Farm, in Westminster, you can usually find Gerald Berry on the dock.

The dock is where Gerald works with the organic veggies that come in off the Harlow fields. He chills them down and packs them for storage, or shipping out to the farm’s many clients.

Gerald is from Old Harbor, Jamaica, and he’s one of 17 men from that country working at Harlow Farm through the H-2A temporary work program, from May to October or November.

Gerald Berry is from Old Harbor, Jamaica, and he's one of 17 men from that country working at Harlow Farm in Westminster through the H-2A temporary work program.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“It’s a seasonal thing, so you go back home, and maybe you might have a little small job, but maybe the pay is not so much. And so you might come here, and [with] the exchange rate, you might get a little more,” Gerald says.

Gerald is 56, and this is his 18th year at Harlow Farm — but he remembers his first day like it was yesterday.

“We join here and we meet Paul and we have a little get together, we and Paul and his wife. That was like on Thursday,” he recalls.

Paul is Paul Harlow, a third-generation farmer running his family’s operation. When Gerald and five other guys from Jamaica came that year, in 2000, it was the first time Harlow Farm had hired foreign workers through the H-2A program.

According to the most recent publicly-available numbers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, about 650 foreign workers came to Vermont under this program in the 2015 fiscal year.

“So we start out in the field on the Friday morning,” Gerald says. “With me, don’t know nothing about, like, vegetable farming. But, I willing to learn.”

Gerald had been working at an apple orchard in Maine before that, which is why he didn’t know anything about growing vegetables. Some of the produce was totally new to him, like kale and collard greens.

“I don’t even know if we grow kale and collard back home,” he says.

And almost two decades later, he still hasn’t tasted them.

“I never have it. I mean, guys have it and they say it’s good, but I never eat it,” he says, laughing.

Harlow Farm hired people through the federal H-2A program for the first time in 2000. The crew of six men has grown to 17, and owner Paul Harlow says that thanks to them, he's been able to expand and hire more local workers.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Since Gerald’s first season, the crew of men from Jamaica has grown. And Gerald has worked his way up to “dock boss,” or dock manager — though everyone on the farm calls him Policeman. Police for short.

“I was, like, a real policeman, in the past, years ago,” he says. “Way back when.”

Maybe it was that job with law enforcement, or maybe it’s his years of experience on the farm, but Gerald does have an authoritative vibe. For example, while he’s giving a tour of the dock, he notices that a water tank is almost empty. So he shouts out to a coworker who’s watering vegetable starts.

“That’s why I always tell people, that’s why I’m on the dock,” he says. “Because I always notice things. You know?"

But a job on the dock comes with great responsibility. It’s Gerald’s job to make sure Harlow’s clients get what they ordered — in the right amounts, and definitely no damaged produce.

The work day starts at 7 a.m. The first delivery trucks go out as early as 8, so Gerald has to make sure everything is prepped ahead of time.

“And then our lettuce keep coming in, kale keep coming in, collard and lacinato, you know? Things keep coming in, so I have to get them cool,” he says.

There’s a big hydro-vac for cooling the veggies down when they come off the field, and a massive ice-maker that fills four giant bins at a time.

On average, Harlow Farm ships out 500 cases of veggies every day. And managing everything takes a lot of planning. Or, as Gerald puts it, looking forward for the other day.

“I always lookin’ forward for the other day. And try to know what’s going on from the evening, so I can get myself prepared,” he says.

The late afternoon is for inventory, so Paul can know how the day went.

And at the end of the day?

“Well, to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t say my end. No. I just cool off,” he says. “Because, even, like, [after finishing] work, maybe sitting down, playing Jamaican music, having a beer, maybe something’s still down here to do.”

"To tell you the truth, I wouldn't say my end. No. I just cool off." — Gerald Berry

“I always think about work,” Gerald says. “Two, three o’clock, I always think about work. Because sometime, some things just flash across my mind, and I was wondering if I really remember to do it. I like to double-check.”

It’s easy for Gerald to check on the dock in the middle of the night, because he lives right above it. He and seven other guys share an apartment, with a communal kitchen. Two stoves, two bathrooms, and no air conditioning. And when you live at your job, there’s not much separation between work and life.

“Well, yeah. And Paul is a good guy to us, so there is nothing too hard for me to do to him. No,” he says. “It’s not all the while about money, it’s about appreciation.”

This is something Gerald says more than once. That even though he’s working for Paul, seven days a week, for $12.38 an hour, the money isn’t the only thing driving him.

“I mean, it’s like, income for us, but Paul is a good guy, so I personally try to help him out. And I would say all of us try to help him out, because he’s a good guy to us. He treat us like his own kids,” Gerald says.

When Gerald got married to his wife Pam in 2014, Paul flew to Jamaica for the wedding.

“You can’t beat that. That is a a big appreciation. A lot of people said, ‘Hey, you must be a good guy to your boss, because he fly down for your wedding.’ You know?” Gerald says. “He gave a speech. Because he tried to let them know that before I come here, things that he used to have to do, now he can relax. I feel so good, too, that he is there, you know.”

Paul pays Gerald between $600 and $800 a week. Gerald says that money is helpful, but it’s not like he gets back to Jamaica and has a fortune. He says things are expensive there, too.

“You might go home with some money, but at the end of the day, what you’re gonna spend takes back a lot out of it,” he says.

But there is one big life purchase that Gerald was able to make, in 2013.

“I bought a house. And that is the biggest achievement, I guess in everybody’s life. My family is more happy, and I’m more happy. So I can’t beat that. I don’t think I could buy anything that is better than that,” he says.

Gerald has nine kids, though just two of them are with Pam. When he’s home in Jamaica, Gerald works at a grocery shop that Pam runs. When he’s in Vermont, he keeps in touch with her over the phone, and the app WhatsApp. He says life here different, for sure.

“It’s not like Jamaica, where, in Jamaica, like, let’s say you get off work now, you maybe could go to the bar and sit down and play some dominos, or you could go to the field and play a bit of football, or whatever. Here, you get off work, you don’t have nowhere to go, because you stay here. You drink two beers, you play music, and you talk to your family and you go to sleep.”

Asked if that ever gets boring, Gerald gives an emphatic “no.”

“If you want to get boring, you can be boring. And this is when you start to think about home. But if you’re not thinking about home, you’re not gonna be bored. You’ve got to just know that you’re here. You can’t be here and set your mind on home. Like, ‘Oh boy, if I were just back home I’d be playing some dominoes with friends’ — no, you’re gonna get bored. You gotta be here and just know that you’re here. Set your mind on here.”

The Cool Bus

Gerald says there’s nowhere to go when he gets off work. But there is something he and his co-workers do every week — on Friday evenings, when they get paid. They go grocery shopping.

And unlike immigrants on dairies who are nervous to even go to the store right now, these guys roll into Bellows Falls in a mini school bus that Gerald says everybody recognizes. One, because it’s full of Jamaicans. And two, because the letters S and H have been carefully removed from the word “school.”

“The Cool Bus,” Gerald explains. “It was School, but we just take off it and make the Cool Bus. Because, you know, [the movie] Cool Runnings? Everybody love it.”

Daine Smith loads his groceries into a school bus that has been re-christened as a "Cool Bus." The Jamaican men who work at Harlow Farm drive the Cool Bus into Bellows Falls and across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire on Fridays to shop.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Brave Little State hitched a ride on the Cool Bus one Friday, as Gerald and about 10 other guys make the rounds to stock up for the week. And when we say rounds, we mean rounds. We stop at eight stores.

First is Rite Aid. Gerald hops out, all by himself, and we leave him there, and drive up the road to the second store — a local market called Lisais. Inside, the men all head for the meat section. They clear out a shelf of chicken legs — 10-pound bags, for 59 cents a pound.

We fall into step with a guy named Daine Smith, who also orders 5 pounds of pork butt. These are provisions for him and his coworker, Raymond, to cook together during the week. While the butcher is weighing the meat, Gerald shows up in the store. Daine figures he hitched a ride here -- there are so many people in town who know him.

The meat costs $22.48. Daine pays in cash.

He and the others load their bags into the Cool Bus, and then it’s on to the third store, across the Connecticut River, in Walpole, New Hampshire: The Discount Food Warehouse.

In here, everyone makes a beeline for the corned beef. They clear out that shelf, too. Then Daine walks the aisles slowly, picking stuff up, looking at the price, putting it down. He eventually gets some fruit juice, white flour, dry beans, and Lipton Extra Noodle Soup, among other things. $14.84.

Across the street is Mr. G’s Liquidation Center, the fourth store. Daine picks up some Lipton tea and more fruit juice.

At almost every store, Daine separates his purchases into two payments. Stuff for him, and stuff for his family back home.

Fifth is State Line Grocery, and sixth is the Family Dollar. Ketchup, instant coffee creamer, soap, peppermints. At this point Daine is paying in small bills and change.

As we pull out of the parking lot, everyone waves goodbye to a kid they’d been talking to.

"It's good to learn what we learn here, because it helps you to be a changed person when you are at home. We just, like, accept people for the jobs they do." — Junior Campbell

Finally, we stop at a shopping center. Daine disappears into the Ocean State Job Lot, and we head into Shaws with Gerald. He’s buying dried beans, instant soup, and a 12-pack of Budweiser.

When he’s checking out, one of the cashiers recognizes him and gives him a warm greeting.

Bradley Tallent has worked at Harlow Farm in the summer, like a lot of local high schoolers. He’s clearly very excited to see Gerald.

At this point we’ve been shopping for about two hours, and the Cool Bus is packed with groceries. But no one seems anxious to get back. A few guys light up cigarettes in the parking lot, while others just sit in the bus and chat.

“It’s a long shopping day,” says Junior Campbell, who’s been working at Harlow Farm as long as Gerald has. Though Junior says today’s trip is actually on the short side. Some weeks the men go to Claremont, New Hampshire, where there’s a Walmart.

All told, Junior says the trip can take four or five hours.

“So, actually, when we make the money here, we leave more money here, than go home [with],” he says.

Eventually the men will drive home, and park the Cool Bus behind the dock. They’ll each make a couple trips up the wooden steps to their apartment, unloading their food. Then dinner, maybe a little TV. And up again in the morning for work.

Things have changed at Harlow Farm in the years that Junior and Gerald and the others have been here. The operation has gotten bigger, and Paul Harlow says that because the Jamaican crew keeps everything running so well, he can actually hire more local workers. And Junior says he’s changed, too.

“It’s good to learn what we learn here, because it helps you to be a changed person when you are at home,” he says. “Sometimes, back then, you look at people by the jobs they do. But now, because we are working here, and we are working in the dirt, even sometimes, back home, you would see the guys in the garbage truck, you would [think], like, ‘Oh, gross.’ No. Nothing like that [now], that is all disappear from us … We just, like, accept people for the jobs they do. We respect their jobs. It’s a good thing. I learn a lot here.”

Find more of Kathleen Masterson's immigration reporting here. The crew at Harlow Farm is going to be throwing down for their annual Jamaican Independence celebration on Sunday, Aug. 6. 

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Journalism Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.

Editing this month by Lynne McCrea and John Dillon. Our theme music is by Ty GibbonsMusic selection by Liam Elder Connors, and engineering support from Chris Albertine. Special thanks this month to Chris Urban, Sam Evans-Brown, Jonathan Butler, Joe Tymecki and Will Ricker.

Other music in this episode was used under a Creative Commons license: