Migrant Farmworkers

Liaison:  Migrant Justice
Interpreted in:  Spanish

The following summarized comments are the opinions and observations of Migrant Farmworker community members in the Summer of 2020.

“[The government should] take us into account, not only in a pandemic but all the time. You may have seen us fight a lot, it is for rights that we have but that they do not value. We are not considered as people of this state. And that should no longer be a surprise, because they will be able to see and hear this. If we don’t speak there will never be a change. By hiding ourselves, nothing is achieved.”

Environment (Air/Water/Waste/Outdoor Access)

  • Limited access to parks for children was a detriment to mental health:

“There have been a lot of changes in my life, now we can’t go out with our kids to the parks.”

“For my daughters, it completely changed their lives. We used to do a lot of activities outside, and all summer we spent inside. We did go outside in our yard. The schools had yellow tape and we couldn’t even go to the school playgrounds.”

  • Migrant farmworkers reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhood:

“I do not feel that I am safe, because they came to shoot up my house, here. Imagine, in my house where we are living, and they also came to attack us like that. I have that fear that at any moment they could attack me, not only in the streets, but even in the house. And it has already happened:  at like two three houses that happened that same night. And it is, that’s really discrimination.”

  • Several participants reported children experiencing asthma attacks, potentially linked to air quality issues:

“Well that worried me a little because she has asthma, if she gets a little cough then she starts to get upset and yes, there are times I’ve had to take her to the hospital.”

Economy (Jobs/Safety/Education)

  • Farmwork did not cease during the pandemic:

“It’s been a big change in our lives, in every aspect – economically, health, mentally, and physically. We’ve suffered a lot of stress, at least in my personal life and in my family. And our work hasn’t stopped, we keep working on the farms.”

  •  Farmwork is not remote work. Families with children had new challenges regarding child care:

“We had to rethink everything, like who’s going to take care of the kids, who’s going to be working, what activities can we do that won’t carry the risk of contagion.”

  • As dairy farms close throughout Vermont, many farmworkers are left without work. Farmworkers on work visas were extremely concerned about losing their jobs:

“If it hits the bosses hard, it hits the workers worse, because they’re the ones who are helping us survive, and if it’s getting hard for them and they’re closing the farms, then where does that leave us?”

“My biggest concern was to continue working for that person who told me that he was going to arrange my work license.” 

  • Migrant farmworkers are particularly concerned about losing their jobs due to the stability it provides for their families back home:

“Being here we are the breadwinner of the family there in Mexico. And if we are in bad shape here then I think our family is a little more badly off there. If we are fine here, our family there in Mexico is stable, but if we lose our job or something else happens to us, our family is very affected by that.”

  • Farmworkers reported varying levels of assistance from their employers.  Many were grateful to their employers who had treated them with respect:

“The truth is that the bosses were very good to us.  When we checked the temperature they told us that if we have any discomfort they let us know so that we can see how we can help you. Also they gave us a sheet in which they said they were very concerned about their family but also very concerned about us. That makes us feel like important workers, that even though we are hardworking employees… I think they cared for us and made us feel as if we mattered with everything that was happening.”

“Thank God the bosses were very careful with us, we stayed for about two months, they bought what we needed to the house and they also set up a small clinic here on the ranch and every day they took our temperature. I think that helped a lot. They also gave us masks and told us that it was important to stick with the masks. And thank God here no one came out sick. I talk about that because it was very important, the bosses have taken care of us, I would like all the farms to do the same, to care about their workers. Because as we have been saying, if we are essential they must also treat us as essential people and they must care about our health”.

  • Other participants described difficulty dealing with their employers. For some, contracting Covid directly led to loss of employment:

“My brother was found to have the virus. It was a very difficult week, several days like that. He lost his job because he could not go sick, he was isolated.” 

  • Participant who sells food lost months of work due to fear from consumers:

“My partner keeps working on the farm, but my income from selling food, it affected me. Everything’s made by hand, where am I going to make money, what else will I do, if I’m not going to sell food.”

  • Migrant workers did not have access to federal and state programs due to their citizenship status:

“We don’t have access to any [state programs for small business financing]. I don’t know about my peers, but we don’t have a social security number, we don’t have residency, we don’t have the right to any support that the federal government is giving out. I’m a businessperson, but if [I] raise my hand, who sees it? We don’t have a vote or a voice.”

  • Many migrant farmworkers send money home to their families in other countries. The pandemic caused many people to send more money home to cover healthcare costs of their families:

“​​In Mexico, the test to see whether you have coronavirus costs ten thousand pesos. So very few people have access to that. My family has always lived off the land, off of growing corn, beans, watermelon, cantaloupe, all types of fruit, we’re basically our own bosses, our own workers. We live day to day, basically. And there aren’t a lot of resources, so that hit me harder, having my own expenses here, as well as the expenses of my family. That really affected me.”

  • Children of migrant farmworkers had difficulty accessing school via the internet. This led to struggles with landlords/employers:

“Now we need internet [for school], we had to go and see the boss so she would give us permission to use the internet. It got to the point that my daughters’ school had to come and interfere, telling the boss that if I couldn’t have internet, then they were going to install internet in the house. After that, we started using it to get information.”

  • Parents expressed heightened concern for their children to return to school, especially those with health conditions such as asthma.

**Suggestions: Participants identified accessible and equitable education as the best way to uplift all people.

“Because a good education allows you to make progress for yourself. So you don’t need to get other people involved in your problem.”

Food & Transportation

  • Farmworkers reported difficulty in accessing transportation to medical appointments, especially during the pandemic. Some bosses were reluctant to allow them to borrow the farm vehicles.
  • Lack of transportation, drivers licenses, and access to vehicles are all issues migrant farmers face in Vermont:

“Mobility has changed and it’s become a little harder, because it’s always the bosses who take us to the store for shopping. Before [the pandemic] they took us every week, now they’re only taking us every fifteen days.”

  • One participant who recently passed a drivers test described the fear and difficulty of living here for five years without a license:

“If I had to drive, I had to do it without a license. A policeman stopped me, at the time I was a little scared, but no, thank God the policeman was very direct, he only gave me a ticket and that’s it, but he did not call Immigration. From there I didn’t drive until I got my permit right now. I spent five years like this and thank God [I have] a little intelligence to be able to pass the license test and be a little more safe.”

  • Less frequent trips to the grocery store led to changes in eating and buying habits due to limited shared refrigerator space:

“The problem is, since we’re on farms, we always share a fridge between two people so to buy that much food, that’s a lot of food to fit in one fridge. So we have to buy a lot of canned things and non-perishable things that last forever. So our way of feeding ourselves has changed too.” 

  • Volunteers who used to give rides to the grocery stores stopped driving due to the pandemic. Other people who gave rides to the store began to charge more due to the health risk:

“Sometimes they’ll charge you more for a ride, for the simple reason that they’re taking a risk – they say, ‘I’m risking my life.’”

  • A few migrant farmworkers had access to food delivery services and/or their own transportation:

“In my case, we have a car and when we learned that the pandemic was coming, we prepared ourselves with enough food. A lady came to leave us food every Thursday, she left it at the door, she just knocked and left, we had no contact. For the transport, thank God, there was our little car.”

Health

“If we are essential they must also treat us as essential people and they must care about our health.”

“I am a little afraid of getting sick because here you pay a lot to go to the doctor. We here do not have Medicaid, due to the fact of being migrants. That worries a body.”

  • Most participants did not have health insurance, so they were very concerned about the costs of getting sick:

“Because, as we know, we don’t have insurance to cover us. So, like, everything would have to come out of our own pockets. So that’s something that most of us, if your head hurts or a cow kicks you, the bosses never come and tell you, ‘you gotta go to the doctor.’ They just ask you ‘hey, are you feeling okay’ and if you can keep working. If you need to rest five minutes, but they never tell you ‘I’m going to take you to the doctor.’”

  • Some farmworkers are hesitant to seek medical attention for fear that they may be stopped and questioned by the police:

“We come to work here on the ranches and we’re like, in the dark, far away from the world. So, at the moment that we think we need medical attention, either for an eye injury or of any other kind, the biggest concern is going out [to the appointment]. Why? Because if we go out, we have the worry that we could be, I don’t know, questioned by a policeman, or stopped by immigration.”

  • Some even described reluctance to call ambulances for fear of legal ramifications:

“If my daughter gets sick, the fear that I had was also to call the ambulance, when you call obviously they will need your address so that they arrive directly. That is a concern for me too. Because normally if the ambulance is called, the police are involved and one is afraid, one is worried about sick relatives and apart from that one is also worried that they will go and get ahold of information, more than anything.”

  • Stress induced by job insecurity increased throughout the pandemic among migrant farmworkers, due to the dairy crisis. Being away from family also contributes to poor mental health:

“It is quite stressful, for someone as an immigrant, being alone here. The remoteness of the family and being so long since I saw my family. Then you no longer know if you will return to see your family again or not, so it is quite stressful.”

“The truth is, yes, I felt very sad when I talked to my brother and he already told me: ‘God only knows if we will see one another again, because this happened to me.’ The truth was that it was very sad, no one could see him, he was in the house, but all enclosed.”

“Yes, sometimes I go around crying alone and working. When I feel lonely, depressed, I cry. But thank God I have my children here, those are my whole life. It is sad for all of us who are emigrating here, all migrants go through the same thing. One suffers for his mother, for his brothers, for your children whom you have in Mexico. It is very difficult. Supposedly we are here to give them a better life, but I think that economics is not the main thing. I think it is being one with them sometimes, especially when it comes to children.”

  • Several participants were reluctant to leave the country due to access to critical prescription medication for their family:

“[My mother] needs very expensive treatments and I want to leave [the United States], but I am the one who is sustaining her medications and If I leave she will not have her treatment, it is very expensive.”

“Yes, here we are stuck with the same situation, I think we will continue to suffer so that our family can enjoy a little bit of what we are doing here. The truth is very sad.”

  • People with existing conditions needed more information in their own language on how the virus might affect them:

“Because diabetics have a higher risk for everything, not just in the pandemic but rather because we have low defenses. Any type of illness and we’re a bit more vulnerable – I already know that, but…I didn’t have a lot of access to information.”

  • Pandemic created a new perspective on personal health and family relationships:

“I think we did not give so much importance to health, we were concerned about the health of our relatives, but I think that our own health was not our priority. And now that all this has happened, I think it is very important to take care of our health and also worry about the family as well, which is the most important thing.”

“Through this pandemic, families became unified. We saw that many families reconnected, they got together. As immigrants I think that we too would have liked to do the same… hug our loved ones.”

  • Open Door Clinic provided critical health care to many migrant farmworkers before and throughout the pandemic:

“Thank God, the [Open Door] Clinic has helped me a lot. There are things that I do not pay, I was going to pay $3,000 and the dentist charged me only $1,800. So that is also appreciated.”

  • Timely, critical health information was not readily available in Spanish:

“The information they gave me was all in English; The truth is that I understood a little, that it was about [the pandemic], but I did not understand everything they had told me, because they were canceling [my appointment]; at that time I was working and did not have time to ask.”

  • Some participants reported having access to virtual doctor appointments, although they had difficulty obtaining correct diagnoses and prescriptions:

“The [virtual appointments] on the one hand helped a lot, at least by phone, talking to the doctor who could treat me and they gave me the medicine, [although] at first it was not the correct one and later when we spoke they gave me the correct medicine. Because we too must be aware that the doctor is not treating us physically. I think the doctor treated us according to his ability and according to what he heard from us. [Although] he didn’t really know what illness I had.”

  • Some participants did not trust what the doctor was prescribing due to inability to access routine appointments and unclear communication from the doctor over the phone:

“Since there is a lot of noise at work, I did not understand everything they told me. The only thing they told me is that there was something that I could grab, something until the clinics reopen and I told them that I do not want to take anything until the doctor sees me. Then they sent me a letter from the clinic saying that they are sending me pills for two months, take one daily. The truth is that I took not a single one of them.”

  • Clinics with Spanish speaking health care providers are not accessible to migrant farmworkers who live in more distant rural areas:

“Let there be more medical services. Thank God there are the clinics, but they don’t give endlessly. For example, right here in Vermont there are people who cannot come here, they are far away and have to endure their ailments. These clinics should be extended to other places… than here where our colleagues cannot come because they are too far away. It would be nice if our colleagues could have the services that we have here. It could be extended to other places further afield, and in Spanish.”

  • Migrant Justice posted translated health information to their website and social media outlets.

**Suggestions:  Fund local health clinics that cater to overburdened populations.  Fund community health care models.

“I believe that the most important thing, knowing the consequences of what has happened, it’s to strengthen the clinics and hospitals, the [patient] care. Be prepared for all this, because since you did not know, you did not imagine what was going to happen. So, what we want is for hospitals and clinics to be more prepared.”

Housing & Energy

“We must take seriously what happens to people if they do not have decent housing. I have visited several ranches and I have seen that 4 or 5 people sleep in the same room. I think it is lamentable and sad, because yes, we are migrants, but I believe that we do not deserve to be treated like that. We are all human beings and they must treat us all equally, and they must give us decent housing for us to be well.”

  • Migrant farmworkers have been organizing in the state for many years to achieve dignified lives. The pandemic was an added concern to their existing concerns with housing, salaries, and health:

“We’ve always been particularly focused on achieving a dignified life, and Migrant Justice formed to do just that. Not just to offer direct services, but to help you get a dignified life, a better quality of life. Because we came here to work, but most of us come for many years – four, five years – so it’s really hard to live so long alone, and also when you’re living in horrible conditions.”

  • Some migrant farmworkers are living in terrible conditions on farms, leading to increased risk of illness:

“They’re sharing a house, practically a garage, half of the space is tractors, the other half is for them. It’s seven people, they share rooms, the floor is rustic, there’s no heating, and the bathroom is in terrible condition, it’s only one bathroom for everyone. The truth is that there are a bunch of pests, like mice, cockroaches, and when it’s cold outside, snakes start hiding behind the tractors and they’ll come into the house, so there’s a bunch of illness. A worker from that farm got sick, [and spent] two or three weeks in the hospital. I think they detected a virus that’s caused by the cows. There are just awful conditions on farms, there are so few that have housing in good condition.” 

  • Some farms have better living conditions, but lower wages:

“There are different forms of discrimination on basically every farm, sometimes the housing is good but the salary is awful, sometimes people keep working because the salary is good, but the house is really bad. So, there you see all sorts of different needs, because sometimes people prefer to live a little more comfortably, even though they don’t earn much.” 

“Our bosses are good, my husband works and doesn’t earn a lot, but that’s the tradeoff, that we live alone, we live in our own house, but we also live in a house with cockroaches.”

  • Experiences vary on farms, but many people reported living in terrible conditions among their community:

“In the dialogue from farms, from our community members, there are bad houses, really bad, there are bosses, I don’t know what they’re thinking – I don’t know if they believe we’re human beings, or if they don’t think we’re human at all. Sometimes I ask myself this, because, truly, there are bosses where you say ‘Wow. I don’t know how they can give you this house to live in.’ And sometimes, they say, ‘Don’t worry about it, those people are dirty, they don’t care about the house, they don’t clean.’ But, like, maybe we can be a little dirty, not make a regular cleaning schedule, or not have the best personal hygiene, but not to the level of having an infection or cockroaches, or mice. I also know some folks who have had cockroaches in their ears, that have been in their food.”

  • Cannot adequately social distance or quarantine due to shared housing, single bathrooms.
  • Participants living on farms participating with the Milk with Dignity program reported having a new house with two bathrooms:

“Some of the things that benefit us is having a decent house, we have our own room. No other people live here. The truth is that we are fine, for that same reason, that the [Milk with Dignity] program is here at our ranch and everyone has their own privacy.”

  • Language access issues make communicating about housing concerns difficult:

“It’s not easy to talk with the bosses, you have to find an interpreter to talk about the situation you’re living in. It’s happened to me, sometimes a woman will tell me, ‘Help me, explain to the boss that this thing is happening in my house.’” 

  • Participants asked who they could go to from the state to talk about their housing concerns:

“I wanted to ask you guys, because you’re more informed, what do I do in this case, who do you go to, who do you ask for help from, to whom do you have to go and say, “Hey, we’re here, we live here, come and live in this house for a week and see if you can live here, without heating?’”

  • Lack of heat is a serious health issue of concern for farmworkers:

“There are men who have died from the cold.”

  • Participants were questioning whether there are adequate housing laws in place to protect them:

“When you go to live in a house aren’t there standards? Isn’t there someone who comes and tells the boss what the adequate standard for housing is? About fire safety, the alarms, who looks over the heating, who checks to see if there is a bathroom, isn’t there a law that obligates them to say, “okay, your house is ready, people can live there?” Because they just say, “there’s the house,” and then they put ten or twelve men in there.”

  • One participant lodged a complaint with their employer about the deplorable housing conditions. The employer said if they didn’t like their housing they could leave, and he would not pay them.  Migrant Justice assisted this individual by sending letters to the employer, threatening to lodge a complaint with the Department of Labor. The employer then paid the individual for time worked.

**Suggestion:  Inform farm employers about habitability laws, environmental health standards, invest in on farm housing

Emergency Communications & Equal Access

“It’s sad and it’s so important that we make these spaces so they can know what we’re going through, and that you guys can communicate with people in power, you can make them hear our demands. We’re not giving our time for the fifty dollars, we’re doing it so they can know how we live and how we are. That we’re here, living, that we’re working, there are many families here with children.”

“My opinion is that if we come to another pandemic, what I’d like to see is equal treatment, with our standard of life mattering. It’s like, for immigrants or non-immigrants, right? Because I feel like, at the end of the day, all of us – White people, Black people, Mexicans, Americans, we’re all human beings. And when it has to do with health it should be global, the support, not just saying, “oh, you’re dark-skinned, you don’t have papers, or you’re not legal in this country,” I would want everybody to be equal, everyone the same as everyone else. And that people would stop discriminating.”

“What we as migrants would like is to be considered equal. That they take us into consideration, consider that we are human like those who live– those with a Social Security number, or Americans, so to speak, that they consider us all to be equal.”

  • Migrant workers were not taken into account in the pandemic response aid:

“Government aid came out and only those born here were taken into account; those with social security. Well, it is also important that they say that, no, if a quarantine is to be taken, everyone should be protected, without excluding migrants.”

  • Language access is a major concern for migrant farmworkers:

“I think that sometimes information has been shared that above is in English and then [is] translated into Spanish so that we can understand too. It would be something I think important, and I think it would benefit us all.”

  • One participant mentioned not being able to read the labels on rat poisoning she purchased, so she was unable to safely use it in her home.
  • Information on Covid-19 passed from younger generation to older generations:

“My parents did understand it because they saw that we are here locked up in the house. They saw that we bought food for two months and other things and they asked what is happening and we passed on information that we heard to them as well.”

  • Participants were concerned whether they were accessing accurate information on the internet. 
  • VT news is typically in English, it is difficult to access local news in their language:

“You fall into uncertainty, reading the news, because some is in English. And I, myself, I don’t speak English, so even if I were to go on Channel 13 in Vermont, and they can tell me everything that’s happening, I won’t make my ___-year-old daughter sit there translating everything for me. So if I’m looking for news in Spanish, that news is usually from another state, the news I find, it’s from another state where I don’t live. What I’m interested in is right here and right now, where I live in ______, what’s happening here, in my state, where I live with my family.” 

  • Critical information is very difficult to access for many migrant farmworkers:

“With good information, you can go to the right person, to the right organization. So being well informed, being well educated, for me that’s really important. Accessible for everybody, for all the socioeconomic levels. For everybody.”

  • There was a strong desire for more information throughout the pandemic. Participants said they wanted to be able to speak to actual people with information in order to ask questions:

“I didn’t have access to any information. I wanted somebody to sit down with me and answer all the questions I had, because they’re going to farms and leaving gloves, masks, disinfectants… but I always wanted more – like, with just hand washing will I get infected? I always had more questions about the situation.”

  • Local and statewide organizations such as Migrant Justice, Open Door Clinic, Migrant Education & Bridges to Health were essential to providing resources and assistance to migrant farmworkers. Translated information was also shared on social media (Facebook) and WhatsApp:

“The news, just like medicine, it’s all from the Open Door Clinic, always. They come by for us, tell us if the clinic’s open, what we can do to make an appointment for the dentist, or for specialists, how we can help other community members on farms. I get the news from Migrant Justice. I’m part of the coordinating committee and more connected around that, also, they speak Spanish.”

“I think that the majority use Facebook. I think it would be more practical there.”

  • Local advocacy organizations are trusted partners and are able to relay information from the community to affect relevant policy:

“I think that during the pandemic it was as if we were in the dark [in obscurity] and I think we weren’t seeing even a bit of light there. But I think that as an organization [Migrant Justice] didn’t give up and raised our voices and that was very important. As I was telling you, we only saw darkness and with this I believe that little by little we are seeing clearly and are asserting our rights and we are very happy to have achieved that.”

  • Migrant Justice created informational documents that helped people understand pandemic precautions:

“We have also had papers that the organization [Migrant Justice] has given us. I think they have created an example of what we should do, [and] what not to do. They have made it [through] the organization and it is good advice.”

**Suggestions:  Migrant farmworkers need better access to drivers licenses, health insurance, government financial support, and information in their own languages. 

Summary compiled by:
Jennifer Byrne, Fellow
Environmental Justice Clinic
Vermont Law School
REJOICE 2021

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