Two migrant farm workers took a day off Thursday to deliver a petition to Gov. Peter Shumlin asking him to oppose a controversial federal immigration enforcement program. But the governor was tied up in meetings, so Danilo Lopez and Over Lopez (pictured) pleaded their case with the Agency of Agriculture's second-in-command instead.
For the last month, the Lopezes (who are not related) have been organizing migrant workers on Vermont dairy, vegetable and horse farms in opposition to Secure Communities, or S-Comm, an Obama administration program that shares fingerprints collected by local police agencies with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The program's goal is to catch and deport criminal aliens, but it has come under fire for sweeping up large numbers of undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record.
Asked about S-Comm at his weekly press conference, Shumlin said that on a "philosophical level" he believes Vermont should treat migrant workers with "respect and dignity." But he stopped well short of committing to taking a stand against the program.
"I haven't seen exactly what they're asking us to do," the governor said, "so I'm gonna plead the Fifth."
Armed with a petition signed by 70 migrant workers, the Lopezes (Danilo is pictured at right) and other members of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project arrived in Montpelier unannounced at 8:45 a.m. hoping to catch the governor. Instead, they were greeted by a gubernatorial intern, Catherine Craig, who informed the group that the governor was in meetings all morning. She escorted them across the street to the Agency of Agriculture for an impromptu meeting with Deputy Secretary Diane Bothfeld.
The immigrants' petition asks Shumlin to publicly "say no" to Secure Communities because it "threatens our security," "promotes racial discrimination" and lacks transparency. Until recently, it was unclear whether the program was voluntary or mandatory, and governors in three states — Massachusetts, New York and Illinois — declared they would not participate. ICE has since clarified that S-Comm is mandatory and that every state must be on board by 2013. The Shumlin administration has said no one from ICE has approached Vermont officials yet about participating.
Bothfeld appeared unfamiliar with the immigration enforcement program, asking the farm workers whether it was "Vermont or federal?" Through a translator, Over Lopez, a 21-year-old Mexican who works six days a week growing greenhouse vegetables, clarified that it was federal and told Bothfeld: "We are part of the workforce in the dairy industry. If we were to be removed or deported, your state would be in an economic crisis. Everything would collapse."
Danilo Lopez, a 22-year-old Mexican employed on a horse farm in Charlotte, added: "We come to this country for necessity — to try to feed our families, and if they get sick, to have something to send them to a hospital with. If we were to flip roles and you or Mr. Shumlin were in my situation, you would seek support to defend your rights."
Bothfeld (pictured with Danilo Lopez) listened and promised to pass on the request to Shumlin, as well as supply the farm workers with figures about the exact number of migrant workers employed on Vermont farms. The Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project estimates that 1200 to 1500 migrant workers help sustain Vermont's struggling dairy farms. Most of these workers are not documented.
The workers also released an open letter today to Vermont farmers asking for their support in opposing S-Comm. It reads, "Such programs also affect you as an employer because when we run the risk of arrest, it leaves you without workers and damages your farms and threatens your income. In order to recruit new people, you must again teach them the operations of the farm, only to run the risk of repeating history over again."
Later, at his weekly press conference, Shumlin was asked about the petition and whether he thinks Vermont law enforcement should be acting as immigration agents. The governor wouldn't directly answer the question but said: "On a philosophical level this is what I know. Vermont farmers rely on migrant labor to deliver product to market. And we want to be a state that takes good care of the people that work so hard on our farms."
Shumlin added that he wants Vermont banks to figure out a way for migrant workers to transfer money back home without incurring high-fee services as Western Union does. "We want to make sure that Vermont is a state where, when we host migrant workers, we treat them with respect and dignity. We have a raging immigration debate going on in America. There's no question, in my view, that our immigration policies in this country are broken, and that the federal government is ... frankly, some of their policies are out of step with how we treat our farm workers in Vermont."