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Juan Carlos (left) lives in a converted farm office in the barn of this dairy farm. He and Freddy want to be able to go home and come back to work on dairy farms here. Photo: David Sommerstein
Juan Carlos (left) lives in a converted farm office in the barn of this dairy farm. He and Freddy want to be able to go home and come back to work on dairy farms here. Photo: David Sommerstein

What undocumented dairy workers think of immigration reform

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Dairy farmers - and their workers - have a lot at stake in the immigration debate underway in Washington.

A survey by Cornell University found that 2,600 Spanish-speaking people work on New York dairy farms. Of them, two thirds or more are here illegally. That's in part because there's no visa program for the kind of year-round workers dairy farms need.

The Senate's reform plan offers dairy farms new options for a legal supply of immigrant labor.

Undocumented Latino workers are scattered on bunches of dairy farms in the North Country. David Sommerstein spoke with some of them to see what they think of immigration reform.

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David Sommerstein
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Juan Carlos and Freddy chat with veterinarian, Mark Thomas, who frequent visits for work and to chat in Spanish. Three Mexican men live in this spartan room, with an attached bedroom to sleep. Photo: David Sommerstein
Juan Carlos and Freddy chat with veterinarian, Mark Thomas, who frequent visits for work and to chat in Spanish. Three Mexican men live in this spartan room, with an attached bedroom to sleep. Photo: David Sommerstein
It's 10 in the morning. Juan Carlos is just off a six-hour shift. So he's frying up some beef tacos before another six-hour shift milking, feeding, and cleaning up after the cows this afternoon. It's grueling, fast-paced and dirty work. And it's become clear over the years, say farmers, that Americans just don't want to do it.

Juan Carlos lives in this converted office attached to the cow barn with two other Mexican guys. The floors are concrete. Faded blankets cover the windows. The three sleep on bunks in the same tiny bedroom.

It's small, Juan Carlos says, but I don't pay rent. It's a common arrangement on dairy farms these days. Because we're within 100 miles of the border with Canada – and federal agents patrol these roads – most Hispanic workers rarely venture off the farm.

What's on offer

Juan Carlos admits they watch soccer on FOX Deportes (that's the Spanish-language version of Fox Sports) more than news about immigration reform.

All the dairy workers know the immigration debate is hot right now, and that change could happen. But Juan Carlos is skeptical. You know how politicians are, he says.

Here's what the current Senate plan would offer dairy workers like Juan Carlos. They could stay here and keep working legally, getting what's being called a "blue card". They could even get a green card in five years, and eventually citizenship.

But Juan Carlos says even starting that path would take too long. "Say you can get a visa in a year," he says, "and the visa's good for another eight months or a year. We're talking you have to stay here another two years. That's a long time."

Juan Carlos wants to get home to his wife, daughter, and new land he bought with money earned on this farm. Photo: David Sommerstein
Juan Carlos wants to get home to his wife, daughter, and new land he bought with money earned on this farm. Photo: David Sommerstein
Juan Carlos says he misses his wife and his five year-old girl. With the money he's made here, he's bought land in his village near Vera Cruz, near the Gulf of Mexico. His wife already planted coffee plants. He's going home, and he's hoping there's a temporary worker visa for him to come back to a New York dairy farm later.

Another provision of the Senate's immigration reform plan could help Juan Carlos do just that – a three year guest worker visa, renewable for another three years.

Another dairy worker, Freddy, walks in from a neighboring farm. He grabs a taco and says it's the same story for many of them. They're not after citizenship, like many Americans think. "We have money here. We can buy what we want. But there's always an emptiness, which is missing your family back home, your country, your land. And you miss your freedom."

Freddy tells me the story of one guy who wanted to go back home to Mexico for his father's funeral. But he didn't for fear he'd never be able to return to work or that he'd die trying to cross the border again. If there had been a visa program, he would have been able to grieve with his family.

"If I was to lose them, I don't know how we'd get the job done"

Mexican banda music blares in a milk parlor down the road. The farmer who owns this place doesn't want to give his name because he's fairly certain some of his workers are undocumented. He says he lives with the fear of a bust or an immigration audit every day.

"If they were to come in and they were to discover that perhaps some of these guys aren't legal, and I was to lose them, I don't know how we'd get the job done the next milking."

This farmer says reform would be a huge relief. "I don't know that I've been this excited about legislation of any kind for quite a while."

How does it work?

New York Democrat Chuck Schumer is one of the Gang of Eight that crafted the immigration reform bill. He says the new visa categories were created specifically to help dairy industries like New York's grow.

"Americans do not do the backbreaking, difficult, arduous farm labor. So what our proposal does is provide a year-to-year supply of labor for Northeast agriculture."

I'd like to end up with legal status, of course. To be able to return to Mexico to visit my family, but with the ability to return here to work on this farm. I like working here. -- Ismael, dairy farm worker
Cornell University's Thomas Maloney has followed immigration issues on New York's dairy farms for more than a decade. He says he thinks we're now seeing "much more partnering than we have historically between worker interests and farm employer interests."

"It would take the pressure off their workers, it would take the pressure off everyone and people would be able to have a normalized life working on agriculture."

The new visa program would allow the workers to leave the farm without fear, get sick days, and other labor protections they currently lack, says Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia. He's an investigator with the Worker Justice Center of New York, a farm worker advocacy group.

Martinez de Vedia says undocumented farm workers across New York are optimistic about immigration reform and hungry for more details.

"I'll go and do a health and safety training. I'll ask the workers if they have any questions about safety, and they'll raise their hand and ask about immigration reform, so it's really at the front of their minds these days."

With Congress still debating and a new law far from certain, there are a lot of rumors and unknowns. So undocumented farm workers are making life decisions on the fly.

For example, no one knows yet how the temporary visa program will work - and how long it would take to get one. And to get the immediate so-called "blue card," a person would have to have been working on a farm since at least 2011. So Martinez de Vedia says many workers are counseling each other to stay put.

"It will be to the worker's advantage to have been in the country for a certain amount of time, and that's leading workers to postpone any plans to switch jobs, to go back to their home countries, to visit their families."

That's exactly what 20 year-old Ismael is doing. He's worked on a North Country dairy farm since he was just 15. It's been five years since he's seen his mother and father. "I'd like to end up with legal status, of course. To be able to return to Mexico to visit my family, but with the ability to return here to work on this farm. I like working here."

Ismael was going to finally return home to Mexico this month. But he says now he's going to stick it out and see if his patience is rewarded with legal status.

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