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Sanctuary policy was passed in Vermont to protect a big state secret. Migrant farm workers.


On first entry, the most noticeable feature of Thelma Gómez's home is the smell of cleaning supplies mixed with human waste. The second is the occasional beetle that crawls out of a wall outlet.

"In my country, there are very few opportunities, and, well, I didn’t have any other option than coming here," she said.

Thelma is a Mexican migrant, a mother, and is married to a dairy worker that is also a migrant. Her one-story house sits just across from the farm in Vermont where her husband spends most, if not all, of his week. The opportunity for work on that farm is the reason she made her way to the snowy, northern state. But Thelma also knows that its facade hides one of the state's best-kept secrets.

"The dairy industry does not sustain itself in Vermont, and we have to be conscious of that, that the [migrant] workers are a very important part of this state’s economy," she said.

She's right. Approximately 1,200 to 1,500 migrant dairy workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, wake up each morning and work through the days and weeks to ensure that Vermont's dairy industry, the milk of which accounts for 70 percent of the state's farm production, is up and running. According to the University of Vermont Center for Rural Studies, in recent history, those statistics made Vermont No. 1 in the United States in terms of its economy being dependent on one commodity.

While the greater Vermont population might not be aware of the industry's reliance on migrant labor, and while national rhetoric towards immigrant labor has been vitriolic, state and local officials have some semblance of its importance.

"We have dairy farms in town and dairy farms in Vermont that are highly dependent on immigrant labor," said Carl Etnier, a member of the East Montpelier Selectboard, "... who will milk our cows if the current administration’s immigration policies make it unattractive for immigrants from Mexico to work on Vermont dairy farms?"

In 2017, East Montpelier became one of several small towns in Vermont that adopted "sanctuary" legislation. Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill that limits state cooperation with federal authorities when it comes to enforcing immigration law.

Such legislation is a step in the right direction in the eyes of pro-immigration activists. But Thelma knows the problems that migrants face are manifold. When she's not taking care of her twin 3-year-old daughters, Thelma spends her days cooking Mexican food, and traveling to different farms to sell hot meals to migrant workers. She told Circa that the workers are happy to have something to remind them of home. It's that taste of home that serves as a respite from the long days on the farms.

"They don’t have time to cook, so I cook for them," said Thelma. "I go to the ranch to drop off food for them every day, and they don’t have much time, many times working six continuous hours, so sometimes they don’t have time to go to the store. And it’s easier if I take it prepared already, and they just wake up, and eat, and go to work again."

Traveling to different farms gives Thelma a unique perspective. She has a deep understanding of the issues facing migrant farm workers. Things like terrible housing, long work hours, no days off, no transportation, low pay, etc.

"All of the ranches I would go to, and get to know all of the people I would talk to, they would go through the same thing, sometimes even worse things. But in some way, they were abusing our rights, and that’s when I realized that couldn’t keep happening."

But things like these do keep happening. Which is what activist organization Migrant Justice hopes to address.

"I got to know [Migrant Justice] through their really groundbreaking national work, both raising the profile of immigrant dairy workers' rights through the Milk with Dignity campaign, and their leadership role nationally in resisting the criminalization, detention, and deportation of immigrants," said Will Lambek.

Lambek is an organizer and activist with Migrant Justice. Growing up in the state capital of Montpelier, he was raised with the same pride that many of the denizens of the Green Mountain State hold.

"Vermonters are really raised to be proud of our state's dairy industry, and it's something we identify with closely. And I remember really clearly when I first came to understand what was happening behind the scenes."

One of Lambek's co-activists understands what's happening behind the scenes better than most. Enrique "Kike" Balcazar was a migrant worker in Vermont's dairy industry. He often woke up at 3 a.m. and worked long hours. He has memories of being stiffed on pay by a farmer at the beginning of his time in the state. Kike continued to report to work daily until March. That's when he said something life-changing happened to him.

"I was only able to see one car, and suddenly, two more cars came out, one van, and two random cars. They blocked our path, they got out and were running, they opened our car doors, they began to scream at us."

Kike and a friend were arrested and detained by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Kike believes that he was targeted because he's an outspoken activist. ICE, however, maintains that it does not target people based on activism or political beliefs. He was held in an ICE detention center, released, and is currently working with his lawyer to figure out his next move.

ICE was acting in accordance with executive orders signed by President Donald Trump on immigration enforcement. And Kike and his fellow activists know that now, more than ever, their voices must be heard, even though those who want them silenced might feel empowered in this day and age.

"It is very uncertain what will happen with us, but we remain fighting here, and we continue speaking out on human rights for the laborers in Vermont," said Kike. "We speak out for human rights, and we want Vermont and the United States to become a better country that respects all human rights."

Thelma stands with Kike. For her, migrants must stand now if they want to have a chance in a state where many are only just starting to understand their importance.

"We have to be united, and that it doesn’t matter where we come from, we have rights, and we always have to fight, and keep our heads high, and with a lot of dignity."

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