Still in the Shadows - Part 1

Published: Oct. 7, 2019 at 6:54 AM EDT
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Vermont may be far from the U.S. southern border but it has not escaped the divisive debate over immigration.

Our region is home to hundreds of migrant farm workers -- many of them here illegally -- that play a pivotal role to keeping these farms running. Channel 3 first introduced you to this population a decade ago. Not much has changed since, and with the threat of deportation ever present, many of them are Still in the Shadows.

It's business as usual on this Addison County dairy farm. Jose Antonio Chohuo and Manuel Cordovas-Hernandez spend their day in the barn and milking parlor. Jose has been on the job for five years. "When I got here I didn't know anything about the machines or milking, but I learned," he said.

And Manuel has been on the job for for five months. "Milking is my favorite," he said.

Both men left Mexico in hopes of providing a better life for their families back home. They took different paths to the Green Mountains. Jose says his brother-in-laws, who were already in the state, helped him get a six-month visa, which he has since overstayed. Manuel says he paid $10,000 to be smuggled into the country and brought to Vermont.

"And with the necessities one has, it makes you go through that danger. It's dangerous but...," Manuel says with a shrug.

The two undocumented workers say they came to work and send money back home. "That's why I decided to take that risk. Sometimes I think about it a lot and it hurts to leave the family,

Jose said.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Do you miss home?

Manuel Cordovas-Hernandez: Yes.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: What do you miss most?

Manuel Cordovas-Hernandez: The family. It's what I miss the most, and the people you love. You sacrifice being with them to be here.

Like farm hands everywhere, their days are long and they work odd hours. Both men say they are paid and treated well, but they rarely leave the farm, staying in the shadows to avoid federal immigration authorities.

"You've got to take care of yourself more than anything, that you don't get in trouble. I only come here to work Manuel said.

"I'm too scared to leave because I know I'm not safe. And well, that's my life,"Jose said.

"They got to hide because if they go to the dentist or the grocery store, Border Patrol or ICE is going to pick them up," said Rob Hunt, the farm's owner.

Hunt supplies the men with a place to say, gives them some food and takes them grocery shopping. "I want to make sure they are happy. Happy people are a lot more productive," he said.

And with no American workers answering the call for work, Hunt says his farm would fail if he didn't have migrants helping milk his 160 cows. "Without those guys there is no way there is no way I could do it," he said.

And his stance hasn't changed much since he spoke to Channel 3 over 10 years ago. "I didn't hire them because I didn't want Vermonters. I would hire a Vermonter if they'd apply," Hunt told us back then.

Today, Hunt says the same issues still apply. "In the last 10 years we have not had an American come and ask for a full-time job here," he said.

Hunt doesn't feel he is taking the easy way out by using migrant labor. He says it's harder because there are cultural and language challenges he faces every day. "They are not cheaper. They are not at all cheaper. They are willing to do the work," he said.

And the state isn't hiding from the fact that this is happening. "It's clear that the migrant work force plays a critical role in agriculture in the state of Vermont," said Vt. Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts.

He says he sees migrant workers when he visits Vermont farms of all sizes. He feels that farmers treat their workers fair and pay them a respectful wage."Without the help from migrant labor the chores will not get done," Tebbetts said.

Back in Addison County, Jose and Manuel admitted to us that they are undocumented, but their employer says he was given paper work. "My guys, as a far as I am concerned, have always been legal," Hunt said. "You can't ask people based on their race whether they are legal citizens if they are providing the required documents."

Documented or not, Jose and Manuel say they don't want to stay in the United States forever. They want to go back home to live a better life. "No. No. I'd stay here to work but not to stay here to live forever. In my opinion, no, Jose said.

"It's difficult. It's impossible. But no, because my goal is to return to Mexico," Manuel said.

Both Manuel and Jose agreed to talk on camera without fear. They represent a number of the undocumented farm workers in Vermont that eventually want to go back home. We also talked with one migrant who was caught by federal agents and is now seeking asylum so he can stay here. We'll have his story and hear from federal authorities caught in the middle of the immigration debate Tuesday on the Channel 3 News at 6.