Immigration probe daunting, Vt. producer says

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BAKERSFIELD, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont dairy farmer who was among those targeted in a federal crackdown on undocumented workers says he thought three illegal workers had proper documentation.

Clement Gervais believes his family's farm has been cleared following the November inspection by immigration officials, but federal officials say four cases involving farms are still pending in Vermont.

The crackdown has shaken up dairy farmers, some of whom struggle to fill milking jobs and often rely on foreign farmworkers, who may have entered the country illegally. Many farmers are reluctant to talk about the issue publicly for fear of bringing trouble on themselves, and their workers are even more hesitant.

Gervais agreed to speak to The Associated Press after his case was closed, saying he hoped to help other dairy farmers and push for them to be allowed to hire workers under a temporary worker visa program.

Gervais Family Farms was inspected as part of a national effort the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in November to check the records of 1,000 employers around the country who were suspected of having hired illegal immigrants. Businesses that knowingly hired or continue to hire unauthorized workers could face fines or criminal charges.

ICE will likely release an update on these cases in coming months, spokeswoman Gillian Brigham said. In a similar audit announced in July, ICE reviewed more than 85,000 worker documents from more than 650 businesses, determined at least 14,000 were questionable and issued at least $2.3 million in fines, she said.

Gervais, 36, who owns the farm about 20 miles from the Canadian border with his three brothers and parents, said he wasn't fined or charged. He handed over employees' I-9 forms, which verify they can legally work in the U.S, and a copy of the payroll.

"We were prepared in the sense that we had I-9s on everybody," he said, adding that his wife, who does the bookkeeping, had taken several classes the state offered on documenting workers.

"The problem is the documentation they (workers) give you, you take it that it's truthful and accurate," he said. "You look at it, and unless you can see something that's obviously fraudulent about it, you've got to take it for what it is, which is what we did."

But after the visit by the inspector, three Hispanic workers left the farm. Seven, who are permanent residents, remain.

ICE inspects farms and businesses when it receives tips about illegal workers or when they are near or connected to important infrastructure and resources, such as food supplies, nuclear reactors, water treatment systems and transportation hubs, Brigham said. Gervais said he was told the selection was random and doesn't know why his farm was targeted.

Gervais urged other dairy farmers to follow the law and keep documentation to avoid fines or criminal charges.

"All businesses should be doing their I-9s," he said. "If they're not, they're foolish."

He would like to be able to hire foreign farmworkers on temporary visas for several years at a time. Because their business is year-round, dairy farms aren't eligible for workers under the H2A temporary visa worker programs used by crop farmers.

With 950 cows that need to be milked three times a day, Gervais said he's struggled to find reliable workers. Many apply only when they can't find work elsewhere. They often have drug or alcohol problems or troubles at home, he said. He pays his staff $10 to $12 an hour, but said milking can be monotonous and not everyone enjoys it or is good working with animals.

"There's not enough people that want to do it. That's the real, true issue," Gervais said. "I mean there's good Americans that can milk, but there's not enough of them that can and want to."

He was irked that dairy farms — having endured a year of the lowest milk prices in memory — were targeted by investigators.

"With the situation the dairy industry is in, we really don't need this right now," he said. "We're got plenty going on just making a living."

But it could have been worse, he said.

Instead of rounding up workers, the inspector came to the milking barn looking for Gervais. She told him she was doing a random audit and asked for the paperwork. Immigration officials later went through the forms with a fine-tooth comb and found errors, which were largely clerical, Gervais said. They asked for the payroll a second time and eventually told him three workers were illegal. Gervais had talked to several lawyers and didn't know what to expect.

It was daunting, he said, but in end his family wasn't fined.

"It's a whole lot better than the true raids that they were doing before, where they just came in and started swiping through: 'Show me your documentation while we're standing right here ,and if you don't have it, you're coming with me,'" he said. "The approach they did this time is the probably the best we can hope for under the situation, other than them not checking on them."

See "Farmers demand immigration reform."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.


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