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Hispanic men and women - some of them quite young - provide labor illegally on many dairy farms. Photo: David Sommerstein
Hispanic men and women - some of them quite young - provide labor illegally on many dairy farms. Photo: David Sommerstein

Lawmakers push visas for dairy workers

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Lawmakers on both sides of Lake Champlain say Congress is making progress on immigration reform. And they want to make sure the dairy industry is a part of it.

North Country Congressman Bill Owens and Vermont Congressman Peter Welch held a joint press conference in Burlington yesterday.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Owens acknowledged that undocumented immigrants are working the milk parlors of the region’s dairy farms. He said a new visa for dairy workers is critical. "We have many farmers who unfortunately are forced into a position where they are unable to secure legal farm labor," said Owens. "This is a very serious problem, and we want to make sure we get this into the legislation."

 Many dairy farmers say they’re unable to find reliable local employees. And current federal immigration policy doesn’t have a visa program for the dairy industry. So farmers have been hiring people from Mexico and Central America. There are estimates that more than a thousand work illegally in New York and Vermont.

Welch says he and Owens have introduced a bill that would issue 3-year visas for dairy workers, which can be renewed for another 3 years. Welch said that would provide security for both farmer and worker. "You’d take this program out of the shadows and give some security to our dairy farmers," said Welch, "who are the hardest working folks in Vermont, and some clarity and legal status to the workers who are here, working in the barns, getting this extremely important work done."

Both congressmen say they’re optimistic that an immigration overhaul will emerge from Congress. And they say they’re equally hopeful that farm labor will be part of it because Senator Patrick Leahy is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and supports their approach.

Thanks to Vermont Public Radio for help in reporting this story.

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