Still in the Shadows - Part 2

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ENOSBURGH, Vt. (WCAX) Americans are strongly divided over the issue of immigration, whether more should be done to secure our borders and what should happen to millions of immigrants living here illegally.

That includes hundreds of migrant farmworkers in our region hoping to avoid arrest and deportation. Reporter Ike Bendavid and Producer Daniela Fierro are exploring this group of residents who have been here for years but are still in the shadows.

In Part 1 of "Still in the Shadows," we took you to Addison County where we spoke with two Mexican migrant workers. They work in the state to send money back home and hope to return to Mexico. They tell us they don't want to stay in America.

For Part 2, we head to Franklin County to reintroduce you to Ismael Mendez-Lopez, an undocumented immigrant who hopes to stay in the Green Mountains.

Mendez-Lopez has been in the United States illegally for 10 years working on farms and living in the shadows until earlier this year when he was arrested.

He was away from the farm where he worked on a trip to town to send money back to his family when he was pulled over by the Border Patrol. Questioned about his citizenship and with no documentation, Mendez-Lopez was detained.

"I don't think I am a criminal, but being in this country I feel like one because I don't have the paperwork," he said.

He was sent to a federal detention center in Dover, New Hampshire. WCAX News talked with him on the phone while he was waiting for a court hearing.

"I'm not ashamed," he said. "God knows and he gives me an opportunity to stay here... I will continue working."

Mendez-Lopez filed a claim for asylum-- a request to be allowed to stay in the U.S. because of fear of persecution in his native Mexico. His petition is now being considered and he's back in Vermont no longer fearing arrest.

"Yes I am undocumented but I also have paperwork showing I'm starting the process, so I am able to stay," he said.

That's not the case for hundreds of other undocumented farmworkers in our region who worry about encounters with the Border Patrol.

"What they are doing is creating fear in our community," said Marita Canebo of Migrant Justice.

Members of the advocacy group Migrant Justice believe federal agents have increased visibility around farms to keep the migrant workers in the shadows.

"It's easier to have them hidden, working, not speaking up, not raising their voices, not seen as humans," Canebo said.

The Border Patrol denies any special attention paid to farms. They would not agree to speak on camera, but issued a statement that said, "In certain areas of Swanton Sector it is impossible to travel east or west without driving by farms."

And the Border Patrol says its agents are not targeting farmworkers, saying, "Arrests of illegal aliens that work on farms ... represent a small percentage (low single-digit) of the total apprehensions by Border Patrol agents."

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Do you want to become a U.S. citizen?
Ismael Mendez-Lopez: Yes, I want to be a U.S. citizen.

Mendez-Lopez is seeking to stay in the midst of a heated debate over U.S. immigration policy. Securing U.S. borders and limiting immigration are President Trump's top priorities.

"We have to stop illegal immigration. We have to. We have to," the president has said. "We have some bad hombres here, and we're gonna get 'em out."

Democrats like Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy oppose Trump's hard-line stance. Leahy has supported bipartisan reforms that would give undocumented workers a path to citizenship.

"These people come, they pay taxes, they earn money, they help the economy," Leahy said.

Vermont's most-senior senator takes pride in fighting for Vermont farmers, especially dairy farmers. He says migrant work is a part of life on most farms in 2019.

"They work very hard and we Vermonters better be glad that they are here," Leahy said.

Farmers we have talked with blame elected officials of all political parties.

"Why doesn't Congress act? I am not sure," farmer Rob Hunt said.

We talked with Vermont state police who wanted to make clear that state and local police view immigration enforcement differently from the feds. State police point to their fair and impartial policing policy, which prevents troopers from asking about immigration status if they encounter undocumented workers in the community.

But with the constant fear of federal arrest, many migrant farmhands feel they can't venture away from the farms where they work.

Wednesday night at 6:00, Ike Bendavid continues his series Still in the Shadows by talking with a woman who helps support migrant farmers.