by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 17, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Wanted: Person willing to work long hours from dawn to dark year round. Must be good with large animals and be able to handle heavy machinery. Must be able to do hard, difficult labor under constantly changing conditions in all types of weather, and be available and ready to work every day."
That's what a want ad for a dairy farm laborer here in Vermont might look like. It's a challenging job that not many people want to do. That's why many farmers have turned to migrant workers to do the hard work that comes with milking cows twice a day.
There are an estimated 2,000 migrant workers -- most of them Mexicans with farming experience, many of them undocumented -- on Vermont's dairy farms. The workers get paid between $8-$12 an hour, plus housing. The farmers get a steady, reliable workforce.
The pay is far more than migrant workers could earn back home, but it comes at a price. They must live in the shadows, in an almost underground existence, for fear that they might be deported.
The other migrant laborers we see on local farms are here through what's known as the H-2A guest worker program. They get temporary visas to work in Vermont for six months and then go back home. But there is no similar guest worker program for dairy workers, for dairying is a year-round job. So farmers have to choose between keeping their farms running or strictly following immigration laws.
Last fall, four Vermont dairy farms received subpoenas from federal immigration officials. They were asked to produce employment records showing their workers' legal status. It was enough to make farmers around the state nervous about whether they will be targeted next.
For all the huffing and puffing of states such as Arizona, and its new law that requires police to demand proof of citizenship or residency when they suspect someone is in the country illegally, the reality is that the U.S. economy needs immigrants, legal and illegal, to function.
Unfortunately, immigration policy remains a hot-button political issue. There are too many politicians who would rather demonize undocumented workers than recognize that large segments of the U.S. economy would grind to a halt if we deported every person who is in this country illegally.
Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who served as commissioner of the Immigration & Naturalization Service in the Clinton Administration, took on the immigration issue in a piece last month in The Washington Post entitled "Five myths about immigration."
First off, immigrants make up about 12.5 percent of our population and about 15 percent of our workforce. Given our nation's aging population, Meissner wrote, they are likely to be the prime source of workers for years to come. Immigrants typically are first-hired, first-fired employees and they tend to complement, rather than displace, American workers. They are also paying more into the tax system than they get back in benefits.
Some claim today's immigrants aren't integrating into American society like past waves did. Meissner said this charge was leveled at the Irish, Italian and German immigrants that flooded into America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It takes about two generations to become assimilated, and a lot depends on how quickly new arrivals learn English and on the education and mobility of the children of immigrants.
As for the supposed wave of immigrants swamping our borders, Meissner wrote that there are fewer immigrants in the United States today than there were in 1890, when immigrants constituted an all-time high of 14.8 percent of the population. Two-thirds of immigrants are here legally, and of the roughly 10.8 million who are illegal, about 40 percent arrived legally but overstayed their visas.
This makes the charge that our borders are unprotected seem hollow. Meissner wrote that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Border Patrol has doubled its staffing and border security has been dramatically strengthened. At the same time, if our government provided enough work visas to meet the demands of our economy, most of the immigration enforcement problems would disappear.
That's why farmers want Congress to pass an "AgJobs" bill that would enable those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days in the previous two years to get some kind of legal status. Farmers also say the visa program for temporary workers needs to be simplified.
The biggest myth Meissner challenged is that immigration reform cannot happen in an election year. She pointed out that all the significant immigration bills enacted in the past 30 years have occurred in election years, and that given the public uproar over the Arizona law, this may be the time to get serious about coming up with realistic legislation that admits how dependent our nation has become on immigrants and offers a path for them to become citizens.
Despite the massive backlash around the nation against Arizona's decision to demonize non-white residents, more states, particularly in the West, are looking enact their own versions of the Arizona law that threaten to turn our nation into a police state. But the 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of the law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this provision applies to everyone, even undocumented immigrants, and that it's up to the federal government, and not the states, to deal with regulating immigrants.
The court will likely strike down the Arizona law, but the Obama Administration and the Democrats in Congress shouldn't wait for that to happen. They should stand up for reform and do it now while the public's attention is focused on the issue.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.