N.H. dairy farms deal with threat of labor deportations

By on Mar 28, 2017 in Stories |

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Their long hours of milking, cleaning the parlor, breeding cows and herding the animals are an essential part of how milk makes it into New Hampshire’s grocery stores.

But those farm laborers – often immigrants with forged or expired documents – are worried about doing their own shopping at the supermarket these days for fear of deportation.

Farmers here and across the country are concerned about losing their workers, too, as the dairy community waits to see to what extent President Donald Trump’s immigration executive orders will be carried out.

The looming threat of widespread deportation isn’t necessarily what New Hampshire farmers expected from Trump, said Dave Chappelle, a Vermont and New Hampshire labor management consultant for dairy farms.

“I have been to farms in New Hampshire where I have gone to talk to the Hispanic employee, who the owner knows probably doesn’t have the proper paperwork to be here, and I’m talking right underneath a Trump-Pence poster,” he said. “A lot of it I attribute to not having clear policies.”

Chappelle referenced the two Department of Homeland Security memos released by the Trump administration in late February, which indicate that while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will prioritize the deportations of unauthorized immigrant residents who have committed crimes, it will expand enforcement to a broader group of those in violation of immigration laws.

News reports show, for instance, that ICE agents have detained several members of the Vermont farmworker group Migrant Justice. While one of the unauthorized immigrants had a pending DUI charge, two others faced no criminal charges.

Alternately, New Hampshire State Police said that Friday it pulled over a van swerving on Interstate 93 in Windham and discovered its occupants – some traveling in the cargo compartment – were here illegally

Two were wanted fugitives, police said, and one was supposed to register as a sex offender but had failed to do so.

To carry out all this enforcement, ICE will need to hire 10,000 officers and agents, according to the federal memos.

‘Undocumented’ labor

Farm work continues to be the industry where unauthorized immigrants give the largest boost to the U.S. workforce, but it isn’t the only sector hiring undocumented workers.

A Pew Research Center report shows that in 2014, an estimated 10,000 unauthorized immigrants lived and worked in New Hampshire, making up 1 percent of the labor force. They most frequently worked in production, transportation and professional sectors here.

New Hampshire’s labor department and its employment security agency do not try to track the state’s workers who don’t have legal documents – or their economic impact.

“When you start talking undocumented – it’s undocumented,” state economic and labor market information bureau research analyst Bob Cote said. “There’s no way to ascertain the positive or negative effects of their presence.”

But anecdotally, Chappelle said unauthorized immigrant labor is an important component of the New Hampshire dairy industry.

“In general, there aren’t that many Americans that are interested or willing in doing farm jobs,” he said.

So people from southern Mexico and Guatamala, willing to work 70-hour weeks and looking for on-farm housing, make a good match, he said.

That being said, “The idea that farmers are getting Hispanic laborers on the cheap is completely false,” Chappelle added. Dairy farm workers make about $9 an hour, he said, and they also receive benefits like housing, utilities, rides to the store and the doctor’s office, plus Spanish-language TV.

Chappelle said these laborers are generally connected with farms through people already working there.

“There’s a lot of informal networks,” he said. “There’s always sort of a flow of people coming in and out.”

For the six or eight farms Chappelle works with in New Hampshire, he said farmers do everything “by the books” with their laborers: employment eligibility forms, federal income tax withholding forms, worker’s compensation.

“There are some farms out there that don’t do that – they’re exposing themselves to a lot of risk,” Chappelle said. The I-9 form, he added, can act as a “get out of jail free” card if ICE agents come knocking: Are farmers expected to be ID verification experts?

If mass deportations were to happen, however, Chappelle said it could spell disaster for larger farms – 12 or 15 employees lost overnight cannot be quickly replaced.

“There’s not a whole lot that they can do,” he said of the dairies. “If they had an option besides Hispanic workers, they may have already gone that way. It’s not like they’re getting them on the cheap.”

Planning for the worst?

Unauthorized immigrant farmworkers being deported is not a new phenomenon. Chappelle said he knew of several laborers who were detained while they were in a Lancaster pharmacy late last year – still under the Obama administration.

“It’s good to point out that Obama deported more people than any other president,” Chappelle said.

But the uncertainty of how Trump’s executive order will be carried out, Chappelle added, is the current cause for anxiety.

“I know farms on both sides of the (Connecticut) river that are saying they voted for Trump but didn’t think he would crack down on the deportations,” he said. “Farmers obviously don’t want any problems for their employees.”

Farmers and employees are being much more cautious in what they do. No dairy farmers were willing to be interviewed for this story for fear of becoming an immigration enforcement target, and Chappelle said he’s seen laborers skip trips to the store and the doctor’s office.

“With this community, everyone is so nervous and so on edge you don’t have to have much happen to get everybody spooked,” he said. “People are unsure of what’s going on out there.”

There are some efforts to get out ahead of the issue. Migrant Justice has held several rallies including one in Boston on Monday, according to news reports. And Chappelle said he’s part of a group working with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to come up with dairy farm contingency plans in the case of widespread laborer deportation.

New Hampshire, which has 115 bovine dairy farms compared to Vermont’s 850-plus, does not have a similar effort underway.

But with Granite State farms providing a third of the state’s consumed dairy, New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner said these immigration and farm labor issues cannot be ignored.

“This is a big issue for agriculture and food production across the country, and it’s a very substantial portion of the total workforce,” Lorraine Merrill said. “It’s really something that our country needs to deal with in a rational way.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that unauthorized immigrants proportionately contribute the most to the farm work sector, though are hired in greater numbers in other work sectors.