VERMONT - "Rita" says she's always treated the Mexican workers on her farm like they were family. They've shared the workloads, gone shopping together, even had Christmas dinners together. Like many of her fellow dairy farmers in Franklin County, Rita (not her real name) and her husband have long depended on undocumented Mexican laborers to get their cows milked and fed, in large part because they've been unable to find American workers who are willing to fill those jobs.
In the last two years, increased attention has been focused on Vermont's foreign dairy workers who are in the country illegally. Rita has tried to protect her help from getting arrested. She now does all the grocery shopping for them - last year, two of her best workers were picked up during a trip to the supermarket; they were later deported. When the workers needed to send money home to their families in Mexico, Rita would handle the wire transfers at a nearby Western Union office.
She did, that is, until a Western Union agent told Rita she's no longer allowed to wire money to Mexico - or anywhere else.
"All of a sudden, Western Union calls me up one day and says I'm shut off. They said I had sent too much money to Mexico," Rita says. "They didn't give me a reason. I just couldn't believe it."
Until recently, Rita was wiring about $950 to her workers' families in Guadalajara about once every three weeks. (Sending $1000 or more requires additional paperwork from Western Union.) In addition, Rita was wiring cash to her son who's incarcerated out of state, so that he could buy goods at the prison commissary. Those wire transfers have also been denied. Rita claims she's heard from other farmers in the area who have encountered similar difficulties.
"Farmers up here are really, really scared to do anything with [their workers]," Rita adds. "If they caused problems I could see it, but they don't. All they want to do is work."
Sherry Johnson is director of media relations at Western Union's corporate headquarters in Englewood, Colorado. Without knowing the specifics of Rita's case, Johnson could not comment on why she was denied access to the company's money-transfer services. However, she explains that annual limits are placed on the amount of money consumers may send, whether domestically or abroad. Some of those limits are set by the federal government according to Johnson, while others are imposed by Western Union itself in order to prevent misuse of its system. She would not disclose what those limits are.
"The fact that this individual was sending money on behalf of multiple workers leads me to believe that she may have met those thresholds," Johnson says. "We would highly discourage that kind of activity because it could be construed as money-laundering activity."
Johnson insists that these limits are nothing new to Western Union, the world's largest money-transfer service, and that they are not specific to Mexico or other Latin American countries. Moreover, she says she has no knowledge that Western Union is cooperating with U.S. Immigration or Customs Enforcement to apprehend undocumented workers, either in Vermont or elsewhere in the United States.
"Western Union's position has always been that determining somebody's citizenship is a matter for law enforcement," Johnson says. "It's just not something that's our area of expertise."
In a written statement, a spokesman for the northeast region of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment for this story, except to say that his agency does not disclose the details of its investigative techniques.
Vermont Ag officials have estimated that about 2000 undocumented workers, most of them Mexican, are on Vermont's dairy farms. As Seven Days first revealed in June 2003, most of these workers are men who are supporting extended families in Mexico; they tend to stay in the United States for about two years before returning home.
Western Union will not disclose how much money is sent annually between Vermont and Mexico, claiming it's proprietary information. However, an April 2004 study by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration found that most international remittances sent from the United States go to Mexico and Central America - about $19.3 billion in 2003. They now outstrip the levels of foreign aid and tourism for those countries. The same study found that about 75 percent of those remittances are spent on household expenditures or basic needs such as food, medicines and clothing.
For her part, Rita says she's found a friend who will send money on behalf of her workers. However, she worries that this difficulty is yet another way of "harassing" Vermont's dairy farmers, who are only trying to keep their farms operating.
"It's gotten so they're making it harder and harder on us," says this farmer of 38 years. "To tell you the truth, if they came in here and did one of those sweeps, a lot of these farms would go down the tubes."