MONTPELIER, Vt. — A federal program intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants is raising fears in Vermont, where Mexican farmhands, many without immigration papers, are a staple of the $560 million dairy industry.
Opponents say aggressive enforcement of the Secure Communities initiative could harm the state’s struggling dairy industry and turn many of the 1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers into prisoners of the farms where they work, afraid to venture out because it could lead to arrest and deportation.
“It’s not going to do us any good. It can only do us potential harm,” said Clark Hinsdale, a dairy farmer and president of the Vermont Farm Bureau.
The program requires state and local law enforcement officials to send criminal suspects’ fingerprints to the FBI, where they are run through a database to determine the person’s immigration status.
Massachusetts and Illinois are among a handful of states that have defied a U.S. Homeland Security mandate to participate in the program, saying they should not be required to enforce federal laws.
Advocates for the workers say it hurts public safety because immigrants will be afraid to report crimes to police out of fear of deportation.
Over Lopez, 21, has gathered 70 signatures from fellow farm workers who want Vermont to reject the program. The VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project also is seeking signatures from farmers and the public.
“I also want the people of Vermont, the governor and Vermont representatives to tell Obama to fulfill his unfulfilled promises to the Latino community that helped elect him by stopping this unjust program that is tearing apart our communities and work for comprehensive and just immigration reform,” he said in a written statement.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that the department would focus on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals or pose a threat to national security or public safety. The move came amid protests from immigrant communities that the Obama administration is too centered on deporting illegal immigrants who have no prior offense or who have been picked up for traffic violations or other minor offenses.
The Department of Homeland Security says Secure Communities is an information sharing program that is focused on criminal offenders.
Between October 2008 and October 2010, the number of convicted criminals that Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed from the United States increased 71 percent, while the number of immigrants removed without criminal convictions dropped by 23 percent. The Secure Communities program is an attributing factor, the department said.
The program is a basic component of immigration enforcement, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports it and advocates for tougher immigration laws.
He said the program targets people who’ve already been arrested for a crime.
“This is not stopping people while they’re taking their kids to the ice cream store and asking for their driver’s license like the Arizona law opponents were saying,” he said. “This is people arrested, booked, their fingerprints are taken.”
Some local police agencies in Vermont have taken a hands-off approach, focusing on criminal activity and not immigration status.
“What it means is that they’re supposed to be pursuing a federal priority which may be a federal priority in Arizona but it’s not a priority in Vermont,” Hinsdale said of the federal program.
Many farmers struggle to find workers in rural areas to milk cows and do other hard work and have come to rely on farm workers from Mexico. Because their business is year-round, dairy farms aren’t eligible for foreign workers under the H2A temporary visa worker programs used by crop farmers, although Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has pushed for a change.
“These workers are quality workers, they’re valued and they’re liked in the farm community,” Hinsdale said.
But state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, who represents the farming community of Orleans County, said he’s heard complaints from workers who said they were laid off because a farm wanted to hire less expensive Mexican workers.
Leahy thinks the initiative in practice captures more immigrants than the criminals it purports to target, resulting in a significant number of people with low-level prior offenses being put into deportation proceedings, Carle said.
“In Vermont who this would affect are some of the hardest working people working in some of our most core industries — like our dairy industry — and many of our other agriculture industries, and so we think it’s a flawed program that should be stopped, and we need real immigration reform,” said James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center.