L.J. Wood, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Vermont, stands tall in his flannel shirt and rubber boots, ankle-deep in early spring mud, as he tries to reassure his three migrant workers that they are safe here.
Their first shift begins at noon, wading through snow and manure to the milking parlor where 400 Holstein cows will produce 36,000 pounds of milk a day. And the workers, who have migrated from Mexico, will do it all over again at 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., in split shifts. But on this overcast day, the men on this 1,300-acre farm are scared—and so is Wood, who is worried about President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration and the loss of a reliable workforce.
"They are afraid to leave the farm," Wood says. "I fear for my guys. We are connected to them. They are family."
Since March, six undocumented farm workers have been arrested in Vermont by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, several of them activists with Migrant Justice, which advocates for worker's rights on the state's dairy farms. In one high-profile case, Enrique "Kike" Balcazar, a 24-year-old former dairy worker from Tabasco, Mexico, was held in detention for 11 days then released on bail after supporters sent more than 12,000 emails to ICE.
Balcazar, whose hearing is scheduled for 2018, says his arrest was "a direct attack against those of us who are visibly exercising our rights to ensure respect and equal treatment for our community in Vermont and around the country."
Vermont, famous for Bernie Sanders, maple syrup, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, is also home to thousands of Latin American workers who do the dirty and sometimes dangerous farm work most Americans refuse to do. Vermont is known for its robust tourism industry, but the largest part of the state's economy comes from dairy farming, a $2.2 billion business. It brings in $360 million in wages in 6,000 to 7,000 jobs, which doesn't include countless related jobs, such as veterinarians and animal-feed production. With $505 million worth of milk sales, dairy accounts for two-thirds of the state's farm products, more than maple syrup, Christmas trees, or corn, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's census.
"They are afraid to leave the farm. I fear for my guys."
For the last 15 years, much of Vermont's dairy industry has relied on a Hispanic workforce. Its 838 dairy farms hire about 660 immigrants, mostly men from southern Mexico, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. But because it's an underground economy, some activists say the number of migrants may be as high as 2,000 (in a state that has about 625,000 people.).
Balcazar says deportations are "nothing new" in Vermont, but "now the attacks are coming more directly."
"We can see the impact in the fear of the community, as many immigrants are leaving their jobs in agriculture, leading to labor shortages," he says.
A dairy worker's job is grueling: 60- to 80-hour weeks and isolation from families back home. Migrants are highly dependent on their employers to meet their basic needs and legal protections. Only about 15 percent of immigrant workers have families, but that number is on the rise, according to Migrant Justice, which was founded after the death of a 19-year-old migrant worker on a dairy farm. Some stay for a number of years then return home; others set down roots and make a home.
Agriculture workers are excluded from labor laws and therefore can be paid below minimum wage. Because most workers live in employer-provided housing, when their job is terminated, they can be thrown off the property. And both activists and workers say there's been discrimination.
"Many farms have a relationship of mutual respect, but on others there is blatant racism," says Will Lambek, a spokesperson for Migrant Justice. "Some employers care more about their animals than human beings."
The farmers say they want to respect the law, but there are no legal means to do so. As far as they're concerned, the migrants are here legally—all their paperwork is on file, as required by law. But it's common knowledge that a large majority of the documents are fake, and many employers don't bother to use the voluntary e-verification system to check for the validity of the migrants' identities. Those from all political stripes say Trump's immigration policies threaten to destroy this crucial sector of the economy.
Wood voted for Trump, as did his three brothers and their father, Loren, who are all partners in the family business. Like other conservative farmers in this otherwise progressive state, they said they hoped to shake up the stalemate in Washington, D.C. But now they say the president's tough stance on immigration could hurt their livelihood and the workers they care about.
"A lot of people in this country think of immigrants based on what they hear on television or read in the news or Internet," Wood says. "We want people to know that, every day, they eat or drink something an immigrant helps produce: wine, or a glass of milk, or cheese, or the hotel bed they sleep in."
In 2013, Wood's family hired Pedro, a short, mustachioed man of 47 with a thick head of black hair. He has been in the U.S. for 13 years, leaving behind a large family in Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico coast, where he raised cows. Wood says he hired the two other workers in a "kind of underground" system "through a friend of a friend."
"We needed people and tried to get Americans," he says, "but they wouldn't do it."
Pedro (not his real name), who speaks little English, says he is treated well by his farm family, and Vermonters, for the most part, are kind. "But now, the laws are different with the police, and we can feel that," he says. "I am afraid to go to public places. And it makes me sad."
Some migrants have non-citizen driving permits, allowed under Vermont law since 2013, but outings to the grocery store now feel dangerous. "As soon as we get out of the parking lot, we wait to get snatched up," Pedro says.
His roommate, Rosemberg (not his real name), a 27-year-old migrant worker who is employed on a farm down the road, has decided the environment is no longer worth any payoff; he plans on moving back to his home in Chiapas sometime soon.
"I am done," he says. "I don't want to be taken away." It was Rosemberg who was ticketed by local police, and even though he paid the fine, he still worries ICE will find him.
Wood describes his mother, Gail, as initially being "scared to death" about the prospect of hiring foreign workers. "Now she makes them all cookies and buys them pizza on their birthdays," he says. But even in the best of situations, the rapport between farmer and migrant can be strained. Loren Wood fired Pedro's cousin Jose because he drank too much.
Other migrants workers say they knew the dairy work would be difficult, but were surprised by the way they were treated. Thelma Gomez, a 22-year-old who is married to a dairy worker, says she was horrified by the living conditions she found when she followed her father to Vermont as a 16-year-old because there were no jobs in Mexico.
"It was not what I expected," she says. "I knew it would be different, but I didn't expect the barriers, like not being able to have the freedom to move ... I had to grow up fast here."
On her first dairy job, she was told she would earn $300 a week. But her employer discounted her wages for rent—which she had been assured was free—in a house with no heat and sporadic hot water. The first paycheck for two weeks' work was $200.
"I lived in an apartment where the kitchen was right off the milking parlor," she explains. "The flies were everywhere and there was no bathroom—only a porta potty. But it was never cleaned or maintained."
When Gomez spoke up about conditions, she said some of the farmers would ignore her. Others would say, "You are undocumented, you have no right to protest."
As word of Trump's crackdown spread, the Open Door Clinic, which serves the health needs of the farmers and their workers, began a survey to see how the migrants were faring.
"People started calling us, asking what they could do to help the migrant farmworkers," says nurse Julia Doucet, a 45-year-old Spanish speaker. "There was so much well-intentioned energy, so we decided, let's find out what is needed."
She arranged visits to the farms to hand information sheets in both Spanish and English, advising farmers and the workers of their right to remain silent and to call a lawyer should the farm be raided. Doucet also assured farmers that ICE agents cannot legally enter any of the farm buildings to make arrests.
The non-profit clinic, which not only serves these uninsured migrants, but the area's rural poor, is federally funded through Vermont's Bridges to Health program. In the fall, nurses like Doucet give free flu and tetanus shots to both farmers and their workers. "It helps build trust," she says.
Vermonters—a mixed bag of aging hippies, gun owners, craft beer makers, wealthy retirees, and the working poor—are fiercely independent. In 2016, voters elected Phil Scott, a Republican former race car driver, as governor and a pony-tailed organic farmer, Progressive David Zuckerman, as his lieutenant.
Scott has gone head-to-head with the Trump administration, declaring he would not "carry out immigration enforcement functions" ordered by the president. He co-sponsored a bill that became law this year, prohibiting state police from being deputized as federal agents. The state has one of the most robust "fair and impartial policing" policies in the country, according to Migrant Justice. The state's largest city, Burlington, is also a sanctuary city.
"Now, the laws are different with the police, and we can feel that. I am afraid to go to public places."
But on the national level, immigration reform has eluded Congress for the last decade or more.
Dairy workers are excluded from the federal H-2A visa program that allows temporary workers in agriculture if they can prove there are no Americans available to do the job. Owners of Vermont's apple orchards can legally hire Jamaicans for fall harvesting under the H-2A program, but dairy farmers need to milk their cows 12 months of the year.
In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would have created a new W visa to help farmers who need year-round, low-skill labor, but it never came to a vote because of opposition from conservatives in the House of Representatives. Activists are not hopeful that a current immigration bill in the Senate will pass. It would create a so-called "blue card" to give a route for undocumented agricultural workers to gain legal status after five years.
Although migrant workers do not qualify for federal benefits, they pay Social Security taxes into a system from which they typically will not reap any rewards. Most of their wages are sent home to make life easier for their loved ones left behind. Some stay on and make a life here, but many go back because they miss their families.
Once an undocumented immigrant leaves the U.S., it's difficult to come back without risking detention and deportation, so most cannot travel back home to visit.
Farm worker Thelma Gomez says she is fighting for a "world without borders" so she can freely travel to Mexico. She finally decided to stand up for her rights by going to regional assemblies where she met other migrant workers.
"We were discriminated against, even though we didn't know it," she says. "We were normalizing it—as if undocumented workers deserved less."
Today, Gomez is president of the farm workers' coordinating committee for Migrant Justice and helps lead its Milk With Dignity! campaign, which calls on food corporations to "take responsibility" for farmworker rights abuses in their supply chains. She has been frustrated that iconic companies like Ben & Jerry's have not yet finalized agreements to demand better work conditions from the farms that provide them milk.
Gomez and her husband Roger, also a dairy worker, recently moved to a more humane farm in the Champlain Valley. Roger works a 54-hour week and is allowed one day off per week—the first time in four years he's been able to spend an entire day with his twin three year olds. In addition to her activism, Gomez is getting her GED online through the University of Vermont and hopes to one day be a lawyer.
"The hardest thing is people feel free to discriminate against us more than before," she says. "I had never had anyone offend me in a personal way—in my face. Trump, himself, has said atrocious things about my community. It gives people a license to do the same."
The Wood family laughs when they hear the president talk brashly about their Mexican workers as "bad hombres" and say they hope immigration reform comes soon.
"If these guys were drug dealers or bad guys, they wouldn't be coming to a farm to work," Loren Wood says.
"If we didn't have them, I'd have to cut our numbers. If we lost the help, we'd have to sell the cows," he continues. "If all the immigrants on the farms are deported, what is the country going to eat?"
Lead Photo: A dairy farm in Vermont. (Photo: Steve James)