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Undocumented Workers Are Especially Vulnerable to Border Patrol in Vermont

Recent arrests exemplify the danger that workers face in the supposedly progressive state.
A U.S. Border Patrol Agent rides a snowmobile during a patrol on a frozen lake that splits the Canadian territory behind him and the U.S., near Norton, Vermont.

A U.S. Border Patrol Agent rides a snowmobile during a patrol on a frozen lake that splits the Canadian territory behind him and the U.S., near Norton, Vermont.

Late last month, three undocumented dairy farmworkers were driving home from a Walmart in Newport, Vermont, when they were stopped by Border Patrol. The workers had been at the superstore to purchase necessities and send money to family in Mexico, but Border Patrol claimed that they had received a tip regarding "suspicious activity involving a possible illegal alien." All three were arrested, turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and are now in detention, facing deportation.

This incident is the latest in a growing number of cases targeting undocumented workers in supposedly progressive Vermont, where such workers fulfill an essential role in the dairy industry yet are uniquely vulnerable due to the state's proximity to the United States–Canada border and its demographics as a near homogeneously white state.

Vermont is part of Border Patrol's Swanton sector, which follows the U.S.–Canada border from St. Lawrence County in New York to Coos County in New Hampshire. Although not as well publicized as operations along the U.S.–Mexico border, immigration enforcement in this region has similarly increased under the current presidential administration, with Border Patrol apprehensions in the sector nearly tripling from 2016 to 2018.

Provisions of the Constitution that prohibit "unreasonable searches and seizures" are effectively curtailed in border zones like Vermont. Within a 100-mile range of a border, Customs and Border Protection agents can detain, question, and search anyone without reasonable suspicion or a warrant; within a 25-mile range, they can additionally enter private land. In Vermont, many of Border Patrol arrests have specifically targeted workers in the dairy industry.

"Vermont is very dependent on milk," says Teresa Mares, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont. "It's the main agricultural commodity in the state. And it's an industry that's dependent on hiring workers from outside of the country."

In her recent book Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont, Mares provides a snapshot of the state's dairy industry and its relationship with undocumented workers. Approximately 80 percent of the state's farmland is dedicated to supporting dairy production, which accounts for 70 percent of the state's agricultural sales. The industry provides up to 7,000 jobs and employs at least 1,000 Latinx migrants—90 percent of whom are thought to be undocumented. Dairy farms are reliant on these undocumented workers to fill a local labor shortage, and undocumented workers are attracted to dairy farms due to the stability of the year-round work, as compared to other seasonal farm work, and the relatively low cost of living, with farm owners often providing housing.

Despite the attraction of Vermont's dairy farms, the industry also poses unique threats to undocumented workers. As Mares highlights in Life on the Other Border, more than 90 percent of Vermont's residents live within 100 miles of the U.S.–Canada border and a significant number of the state's dairy farms are within the 25-mile range. In addition, Vermont is home to a relatively high density of Border Patrol stations—four, compared to zero in neighboring New Hampshire. These factors combined render many undocumented dairy farmworkers legally susceptible to immigration enforcement in an area where they have a relatively high likelihood of encountering Border Patrol officers, who are armed with extraordinary powers.

Besides their legal susceptibility, Vermont's undocumented dairy farmworkers are also especially vulnerable to racial profiling. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 94 percent of the state's residents identify as white, and in rural counties that are home to a significant number of dairy farms, such as Orleans, that figure is higher than 96 percent. The lack of diversity makes undocumented dairy farmworkers, who typically come from indigenous or Latinx backgrounds, hypervisible as people of color and, therefore, exposed to racial profiling.

Both location and demographics contributed to the arrests of three undocumented dairy farmworkers in Vermont last month. Newport, where they were arrested, is fewer than five miles from the border, meaning Border Patrol were able to stop and question them without probable cause or a warrant, and the workers' hypervisibility as people of color attracted Border Patrol's interest in the first place. While ICE declined to answer questions from Pacific Standard (Adrian Smith, ICE public affairs officer, would only state that "unlawfully present Mexican nationals ... were transferred to ICE custody from U.S. Customs and Border Protection"), a Border Patrol spokesperson told local newspaper Seven Days that the workers were pursued "based on information from a concerned citizen."

"The 'suspicious activity' here was nothing more than shopping while brown," says Will Lambek, staff member of Migrant Justice, a community organization for dairy farmworkers.

All three of the arrested workers were previously involved in Migrant Justice, which organizes around both labor and political issues. In 2017, the organization celebrated the launch of its "Milk With Dignity" program, through which businesses that rely on Vermont's dairy industry, such as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, adhere to a worker-authored code of conduct, agree to third-party monitoring, and pay a small premium on milk directly to workers. On the political front, Migrant Justice has been involved in securing drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants in Vermont, passing a bias-free policing policy barring state law enforcement from asking about immigration status, and lobbying for universal health care. The organization has also been at the forefront of defending undocumented workers arrested by ICE, such as the recent three, for whose freedom Migrant Justice is now petitioning.

"All three workers are still being held at the Strafford County detention center in Dover, New Hampshire, and awaiting a hearing to determine if they can be released on bond," Lambek says. "This arrest is a good indication of how federal deportation agencies harass immigrant farmworkers in Vermont, profiling and arresting them at the grocery store, in public parks, or on backroads."

Mares agrees that such arrests contribute to a nearly ubiquitous fear that undocumented workers face whenever they leave their farms, which often also double as their homes. The ultimatum between isolation and deportation is a theme that emerged repeatedly in the interviews she conducted as part of the research behind her recent book.

"A lot of my work was done prior to the election, and even at that point people expressed a lot of fear and anxiety of being out in public," Mares says of her research and Donald Trump's presidency. "People have expressed, for a long time, a number of concerns about being out in public, going grocery shopping, going to the store, going to church—and, since the election, those fears have all ramped up."