A Franklin County dairy farmer whose migrant workers were removed by the U.S. Border Patrol earlier this year is speaking out about the incident, and about why he hired Hispanic workers to milk his cows.
Chris Wagner (pictured) and his wife own a 300-cow dairy in the town of Franklin, where he's employed Hispanic workers off and on for the past 10 years. On January 7, 2011, one of his workers was trying to call Mexico and mistakenly dialed 911 instead of 011 (to place an international call.)
When the dispatcher asked the nature of the emergency, the worker allegedly said, "No speak English" and hung up. That 911 hangup triggered a response from the Vermont State Police, who sent two cruisers to the farm. State police, in turn, called the U.S. Border Patrol to come and "act as an interpreter." A short while later, three migrant farmworkers were in federal custody and Wagner was handcuffed in the back of a cruiser.
Wagner says he's speaking out now to clear up what he has long felt are mischaracterizations in the official police report. He also felt prompted by the recent, high-profile detention of a migrant farmworker leader and the debate it sparked over immigration enforcement and migrant labor in Vermont.
"They're excellent workers, very strong work ethic in comparison to some of the local help," Wagner says of his migrant laborers. "Which is unfortunate because there's so many people that need work and these jobs are available. But there aren't that many people who seem willing to put the effort into some of these highly intensive ag jobs."
The official police account of the January 7 incident differs from Wagner's recollection in some key ways. Vermont State Police Capt. Daniel Troidl describes the incident in an email he sent to the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project.
The police report states that after the first hangup, the police dispatcher called the number back to assess whether there was an emergency. The male who answered again said, "No speak English," and hung up. From Troidl's report:
Troopers Metayer and Hurwitch were dispatched to this 911 hang-up call. After being told that dispatch had called the number back and that the subject who answered did not speak English, they contacted Border Patrol and requested assistance from an Agent to act as an interpreter. Two Border Patrol Agents responded and accompanied the Troopers to the residence.
Here's where the versions differ. State police say that Wagner drove by in his pickup truck, "pulled into the driveway and stopped sideways in an apparent attempt to prevent the Troopers and Border Patrol from responding to the scene. ...Trooper Metayer told him that they still needed to respond to insure that everyone was safe and he attempted to continue to the residence. [Wagner] ran in front of Trooper Metayer's EQ, blocking his path and forcing him to stop. [Wagner] was subsequently handcuffed and placed in the EQ so that Troopers could continue with their response."
Wagner maintains he did not block the driveway.
"The driveway is 50 feet wide and I was parked on the side of it," Wagner says. "I didn't stop their vehicles from going up."
"I was panicking, I think, in terms of knowing it looked like they really had an agenda to raid my place. So I started walking ahead of the cruiser. I broke into a trot. [The trooper] got out. His exact words were, 'We'll have none of these fuck, fuck games.' I was pretty much speechless. They put me in the back of the cruiser. I gave them no interference. Then we drove to the dairy barn where they proceeded to file out several employees who lived in the apartment, checked their documents and decided they were not legal."
Wagner was released without being charged and hasn't heard from the three farmworkers since.
"It's a hard thing not to employ these people even though you understand some of the complicated immigration issues," Wagner says. "They come with their own paperwork, but it's not easy as an employer to ascertain whether they're legal." Many workers present Social Security cards or legal resident alien cards, he says, which the farm uses to fill out an I-9 form for each worker.
Wagner stresses that he pays his milkers $9 an hour, plus housing, which he says is "way beyond minimum wage." So it's not about exploiting cheap labor, he says. He's hired plenty of locals over the years, some of whom were great employees and others who couldn't hack the 24/7 nature of dairy farming, Wagner says.
"I have a lot of mixed feelings about how native help competes with [migrant workers'] ability to work and desire to work," Wagner says. "I have a hard time having sympathy with some of the folks who are unemployed because they haven't sought employment the way these guys do. That's not a general statement. I think people out of work need all the help they can get."
With migrant workers, Wagner adds, "the biggest complaint I receive from them is not getting enough hours."
The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project contends that calling Border Patrol to act as interpreter was a questionable move by state police and undermines trust between migrant communities and law enforcement.
In an email to Troidl about the incident, the Solidarity Project's Brendan O'Neill wrote: "If the result of State Police collaboration with the Border Patrol (whether as interpreter or in another capacity) results in the deportation of immigrants than [sic] the message sent to the immigrant community through this incident, and believe me the word spreads fast, is if you call 911 the border patrol comes and gets you deported."
Troidl wrote to O'Neill that based on his review of the incident, "the Troopers contacted Border Patrol for the sole purpose of assisting as an interpreter so that they could property render assistance if needed. At the time they responded, the Troopers did not know the immigration status of the individual(s) who had answered the return call from dispatch."
Troidl went on: "While the outcome of this incident is unfortunate for the individuals taken into custody by Border Patrol, the Troopers acted in a reasonable manner with public safety being the number one priority. I found nothing to indicate that either of the Troopers involved acted inappropriately or violated our Bias-Free Policing Policy."