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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

Dairy farmers and Hispanic workers in legal limbo

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The U.S. Senate passed its version of immigration reform Thursday. But the bill's future in the House is highly uncertain. Many conservatives oppose citizenship for those who are in the country illegally.

Others want to take up immigration reform piece by piece, rather than attempt a comprehensive bill like the Senate's.

With Congress wrestling with a new strategy for immigration policy, we thought it would be a good time to review the legal situation on many New York and Vermont dairy farms.

Several thousand undocumented immigrants, mostly Latino, work on those farms. They pay social security and other federal taxes because they give their employers false social security numbers when they're hired.

Farmers are not required to prove their workers are legal. In fact, they can be sued for discrimination if they challenge them.

In 2006, David Sommerstein explored this Catch-22. Here's a part of that story.

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Farmers are very reluctant to talk in the open about the fact that many workers are here illegally. The employees themselves fear venturing off the farm and risking deportation. Both are joined in a system riddled with inconsistencies and ambiguities where the best thing to do is not ask too many questions.

Elizabeth is a North Country farmer who didn't want her real name used. She entered the shadowy immigration world when opportunity knocked, literally.

A young man knocked at the door and he said in broken English, I'm looking for work. Do you need help?

A couple farmhands had quit recently. She was way overextended. So she asked him to fill out the typical I-9 form for new employees.

"He presented all the documentation that I would require, the same that I would ask of you, and he began working for me."

Once you hire one Hispanic worker, it's easy to find another. Word spreads. Three Guatemalans work on her farm now.

Elizabeth rummages through the mail in her kitchen. She pulls out a letter from the Social Security Administration and reads it. The social security number of one of her workers doesn't match the name on record.

"It does not imply that you or your employee intentionally supplied incorrect information. So what am I supposed to do?"

It says what she can't do. She can't fire the employee or discriminate against him, or ask for proof of citizenship…or she'll face legal consequences.

"So I show this to my employee, and it's in Spanish as well, and then I verify the number and the name as he wished me to use them, and then that's it." She says her employees don't know what to do with the paper, either.

Here is the basic, and for employers, the convenient catch-22 of Hispanic labor. It's against the law to knowingly hire a worker who's in this country illegally. But it's also against the law NOT to hire someone with work papers, even if in all likelihood, they're fake.

Art Gladstone is with the New York State Department of Labor: "Once that document is shown, that ends the process right there because if you were to say, um, you don't look American, and they ask to see something more, that's where they find themselves crossing a line."

The de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy leaves the workers vulnerable. All the farmers I interviewed for this series seemed genuinely concerned about their Hispanic workers' wellbeing. But you also hear rumors of farmers taking advantage of them or ignoring their health care needs.

Jim Schmidt directs Farmworker Legal Services of New York, based in Rochester. He says he has handled cases on northern New York dairy farms: "Questions of not being paid the total amount, low wages, overtime pay, and some housing conditions."

The reality of an Hispanic employee in the United States is a very insecure one.

"Her guys", as Elizabeth says, are far from their families, held captive on the farm by the laws that make them criminals. She tries to keep them happy with Saturday night volleyball games. Her son takes them to play paintball in the back woods.

Elizabeth acknowledges she's on the wrong side of immigration law. But she says she can sleep at night with her decision to employ Hispanic workers.

Sometimes society is a little bit slower at correcting a wrong.

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