VT Digger: Undocumented on the farm: Inside the life of a Vermont migrant dairy worker

by: Terry J Allen Apr 9th, 2017

Silhouetted by summer sun, Carlos stood at the front door of my house. “Hey, come on in,” I told him.

“No,” he said pointing to his work boots, heavy with mud and manure. “But can you help me?” Carlos was one of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 undocumented, mostly Mexican migrants employed on Vermont dairy farms. The actual number, like most of the workers who entered the country illegally, is hidden.

Carlos (not his real name) had come to Vermont after a year working construction in Texas where he could blend into the large Latino diaspora and its familiar culture. Vermont is an alien world, with dark winters and light people. When dairy workers venture off their isolated farms, they stand out.

In a blend of Yankee pragmatism and ordinary decency, many Vermonters, including police and officials, quietly welcome — and often protect migrant workers.

I met Carlos several years back when, as part of an informal volunteer network, I’d occasionally ferry migrants to medical appointments or to supermarkets, where they buy the kind of calorie-rich processed food that horrifies kale-munching locals. I helped filled out forms enabling them to wire money to family in Mexico, lending my name and return address, and wondering what the IRS would make of my sending thousands of dollars to small towns in Tabasco and Chiapas.

After Vermont approved a special driver’s license not requiring legal status, I taught a few guys to drive so they could shop for themselves, get a maple creemee at a roadside stand, and visit relatives and friends on other farms.
Several migrants had given me snippets of their tales — always without embellishment, self-pity, or drama. But it was years before Carlos — bright and charming, but guarded — opened up. Perhaps fording the flooded Rio Grande and hiking five days through the Texas desert — helicopters thumping the sky; hunger, thirst, and border patrols stalking the ground below — seemed so common as to be unremarkable, or too painful to recall.

Though Carlos has learned useful and colorfully idiomatic English, he speaks hesitantly, especially with strangers, and misunderstandings are possible. The favor he came to ask that sun-painted day was that I go with him for a “check-up.” “Well,” he hesitated, “to get tested for STI” (sexually transmitted infections). “Are you sick? Do you need to go immediately?” I asked. “No, I’m fine. I just want to get tested. Soon.”

The community clinic I phoned required two appointments, one for paperwork and another for testing. Two days interrupted, during haying season.

To save time, Carlos suggested going to a “doc in a box” in a strip mall. At the generic office, which looked like it could be selling insurance, which Carlos could never buy, I asked the cost. “$100 for the visit.” As he started taking bills from his wallet, I motioned him to stop. “And for the lab tests?” The young woman rummaged behind the counter. “$500, so $600 total,” she said.

“You’re kidding,” I nearly shouted. “For standard lab tests?”

“No way,” I told Carlos, who was probably deeply embarrassed by me. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it, but I knew how he sweated for that much money.

I phoned the health clinic to compare costs, and the scheduler asked why didn’t I go to Planned Parenthood. It had never occurred to me that the organization served men.

Except for a locked front door, security at the controversial nonprofit was unobtrusive. Joining three pregnant women in the waiting room, Carlos and I made quite the intriguing couple: an aging white woman and a handsome young Latino.

When we came to the part of the form on income, Carlos asked me what to do. I said he could report whatever amount he wanted. No, he corrected, do they want hourly, weekly, or what? He knew what I had meant, but had no inclination to cheat. He wrote $30,000 a year.

The receptionist quickly scanned his paperwork. “We have a sliding scale,” and with obvious pleasure, told Carlos, “You just qualify for free services.”

Vermont, she said is the only state fully covered by the Access Plan which includes birth control, annual exams, STI testing and treatment, patient education and counseling for both men and women who are uninsured and earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

It is a practical policy, given the long-term economic and public health benefits of diagnosing, treating, and preventing the spread of communicable diseases that can lead to AIDS, cancer, sterility, and more.

How else are males served? By way of reply, the receptionist reached under the counter. “We distribute these,” she said, handing me a football-sized clear plastic bag filled with condoms, individually wrapped in colorful foil decorated with hearts and flags, kissy lips, and stars.

When Carlos returned from the exam room, he was assured, although a few tests were pending, that he was clean. I tossed him the bag, and we all laughed. As we left, I spied him slipping a donation, three $20 bills, onto the counter.

In the car home, curiosity overcame discretion. I probed. He hesitated. And then his face lit with pleasure. “I have a girlfriend, and she said, ‘No sex until we are both tested.’”

“Now, that is a great girlfriend,” I said. Smiling, we rode back under a cloudless sky to his farm, where the ripe fields glittered green and the cows, udders swollen, jostled in line for afternoon milking.

Migrant dairy worker, calf

A migrant dairy worker tends a Holstein calf. Photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

Latino migrants fill a gap

The presence of foreign-born migrant workers like Carlos is just the latest transformation of Vermont agriculture. A century ago, the state was 70 percent cleared agricultural land, 30 percent forest. Today, the ratio is approximately reversed. Older Vermonters still remember when, in the 1940s, some 11,000 small, family farms the dotted the land. Kids hand-milked fawn-brown, doe-eyed Jerseys before breakfast and then hitched rides to one-room schoolhouses on the beat-up trucks or horse-drawn wagons that hauled metal jugs of milk — topped with unctuous, yellow cream — to central collecting stations.

The number of farms continues to decline — from 1,030 to 825 just in the last decade. Strained by the high costs farming, taxes, and land prices, many have been drawn over, like an artist’s repurposed canvas, by malls, ski resorts, and summer homes. The last time Vermont had more cows than people Eisenhower was president; today there are 625,000 people and only 129,000 cows.

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