With the nighttime temperature a chilly 16 degrees, those who attended a candlelight vigil for José Obeth Santiz Cruz were bundled up in coats, scarves, hats and gloves. They gathered in front of the Vermont Workers Center in Burlington, Vt., and then walked down Winooksi Avenue to a church.  

They were there to honor the memory of a 20-year-old migrant worker who died Dec. 22 in an accident at a dairy farm.

There were 20 to 25 of them, mostly Anglo, which was rather ironic since the deceased worker was from Mexico. Many of his friends and relatives had been invited to attend the vigil, but none of them did out of fear of deportation or the fact that many of them had to work.

“Sadly, here in Vermont and throughout the United States, migrant farm workers cannot even gather as a community and mourn family members’ deaths without fearing deportation,” vigil organizer Brendan O’Neill told the group that night.

This incident illustrates what O’Neill and others are calling an “unjust, broken and oppressive U.S. immigration system.” Fixing the system — maybe as early as this year — will prove beneficial not only to workers, but to the dairies that employ them.

Political realities

This is an election year, and matters of substance — especially controversial ones — usually don’t get addressed in an election year.

But some people are optimistic that a pledge made by U.S. Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano will pan out. Speaking at the Center for American Progress on Nov. 13, Napolitano said immigration reform would be a priority of the Obama Administration in 2010.

“Over the past 10 months, we’ve worked to improve immigration enforcement and border security within the current legal framework. But the more work we do, the more it becomes clear that the laws themselves need to be reformed,” she said.

She outlined a “three-legged stool” approach:

  • Tougher enforcement laws against illegal immigrants and the employers who hire them.
  • A streamlined system for legal immigration.
  • A tough and fair pathway to earned legal status.

But many observers are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

As of mid-January, Angelo Amador, director for immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was pegging the chances of Congress passing meaningful immigration reform this year at 50-50.

“I think we will know in the next two to three weeks if there is something with a realistic chance of passing,” he told Dairy Herd Management on Jan. 13.

Amador said he has been involved in discussions with U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the two senators who are most likely to come out with a bipartisan bill. Besides the senators, he has been meeting with labor groups “to see if we can find some common ground or a compromise we can live with.” Labor groups have been critical of the temporary and seasonal worker programs, such as H-2A for agricultural workers.

Amador says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has no problem with labor safeguards or the concept of using American workers first. “We just want to be able to bring (immigrant) workers legally if you don’t find enough American workers,” he said.

Meaningful reform

O’Neill, who organized the candlelight vigil for Cruz, volunteers with the Vermont Workers Center and teaches English as a second language to migrant workers on dairy farms. He says he hopes the vigil would prompt a broader discussion of U.S. immigration policy. He said he would like to see immigration reform that “provides full human rights and dignity for workers.”

O’Neill says he knows of workers who don’t step off their employer’s farm for a year at a time because they are afraid of being deported.

“It’s just an inhumane system,” he says. “Workers keep themselves hidden.”

O’Neill says Cruz was one of the approximately 2,000 migrant farm workers who have come to work on Vermont dairy farms — farms, he says, which are in economic crisis and need the workers. Yet, despite these workers’ contributions, they are forced to live and work “in the shadows” due to a broken and oppressive U.S. immigration system, he said.

Immigration raid

In November, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audited five dairy farms in Vermont and asked them to provide records proving that their workers are legal. It was part of a national crackdown of 1,000 employers in various industries.  

O’Neill doesn’t work with any of these five dairy farms, but his colleagues have talked to him about some of the immigrant workers involved. Although ICE’s action was an audit measure rather than a deportation measure, many of the workers at those farms saw the writing on the wall and left. They moved elsewhere in Vermont and tried to find work or they went home to Mexico, O’Neill says.

While some are opposed to these types of crackdowns, others applaud them. 

Case-in-point: When two Mexicans were taken into custody following a traffic accident Jan. 5 in the “thumb” region of eastern Michigan, the local newspaper reported it and several readers offered their comments in a reader-comment section. Some were irate that a local dairy had hired these individuals and suggested that maybe authorities should go after the dairy owner, as well.

“The problem with this all lies with the employer of these illegals not getting charged with any crime,” wrote one reader.

Another wrote, “I have heard that it is the Mexican workers that keep these big dairy operations viable. What’s up with that? With the unemployment rate as high as it is in Huron County, I would think hiring local workers at these dairies would be easy.”

But Tamar Jacoby, president of Immigration Works USA in Washington, D.C., would disagree with that assessment.

“The American workforce is actually changing quite rapidly,” she says. In 1960, half of all American men dropped out of high school and wanted to do some type of unskilled physical labor, she adds. Today, less than 10 percent of American men want to do that. Yet, dairies, hotels, construction companies and other businesses still need that work done.

“It’s much harder for dairies, hotels, construction companies to find Americans to do those jobs — not because we are lazy, but because we are becoming more educated and more urban,” Jacoby adds.

Whether Congress addresses this dilemma in an election year is yet to be seen.