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November 01, 2011

Why Farmer Chris Wagner Hired Migrant Workers to Milk His Cows

Picture 1A Franklin County dairy farmer whose migrant workers were removed by the U.S. Border Patrol earlier this year is speaking out about the incident, and about why he hired Hispanic workers to milk his cows.

Chris Wagner (pictured) and his wife own a 300-cow dairy in the town of Franklin, where he's employed Hispanic workers off and on for the past 10 years. On January 7, 2011, one of his workers was trying to call Mexico and mistakenly dialed 911 instead of 011 (to place an international call.)

When the dispatcher asked the nature of the emergency, the worker allegedly said, "No speak English" and hung up. That 911 hangup triggered a response from the Vermont State Police, who sent two cruisers to the farm. State police, in turn, called the U.S. Border Patrol to come and "act as an interpreter." A short while later, three migrant farmworkers were in federal custody and Wagner was handcuffed in the back of a cruiser.

Wagner says he's speaking out now to clear up what he has long felt are mischaracterizations in the official police report. He also felt prompted by the recent, high-profile detention of a migrant farmworker leader and the debate it sparked over immigration enforcement and migrant labor in Vermont.

"They're excellent workers, very strong work ethic in comparison to some of the local help," Wagner says  of his migrant laborers. "Which is unfortunate because there's so many people that need work and these jobs are available. But there aren't that many people who seem willing to put the effort into some of these highly intensive ag jobs."

The official police account of the January 7 incident differs from Wagner's recollection in some key ways. Vermont State Police Capt. Daniel Troidl describes the incident in an email he sent to the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project.

The police report states that after the first hangup, the police dispatcher called the number back to assess whether there was an emergency. The male who answered again said, "No speak English," and hung up. From Troidl's report:

Troopers Metayer and Hurwitch were dispatched to this 911 hang-up call. After being told that dispatch had called the number back and that the subject who answered did not speak English, they contacted Border Patrol and requested assistance from an Agent to act as an interpreter. Two Border Patrol Agents responded and accompanied the Troopers to the residence.

Here's where the versions differ. State police say that Wagner drove by in his pickup truck, "pulled into the driveway and stopped sideways in an apparent attempt to prevent the Troopers and Border Patrol from responding to the scene. ...Trooper Metayer told him that they still needed to respond to insure that everyone was safe and he attempted to continue to the residence. [Wagner] ran in front of Trooper Metayer's EQ, blocking his path and forcing him to stop. [Wagner] was subsequently handcuffed and placed in the EQ so that Troopers could continue with their response."

Wagner maintains he did not block the driveway.

"The driveway is 50 feet wide and I was parked on the side of it,"  Wagner says. "I didn't stop their vehicles from going up."

Wagner continues:

"I was panicking, I think, in terms of knowing it looked like they really had an agenda to raid my place.  So I started walking ahead of the cruiser. I broke into a trot. [The trooper] got out. His exact words were, 'We'll have none of these fuck, fuck games.' I was pretty much speechless. They put me in the back of the cruiser. I gave them no interference. Then we drove to the dairy barn where they proceeded to file out several employees who lived in the apartment, checked their documents and decided they were not legal."

Wagner was released without being charged and hasn't heard from the three farmworkers since.

"It's a hard thing not to employ these people even though you understand some of the complicated immigration issues," Wagner says. "They come with their own paperwork, but it's not easy as an employer to ascertain whether they're legal." Many workers present Social Security cards or legal resident alien cards, he says, which the farm uses to fill out an I-9 form for each worker.

Wagner stresses that he pays his milkers $9 an hour, plus housing, which he says is "way beyond minimum wage." So it's not about exploiting cheap labor, he says. He's hired plenty of locals over the years, some of whom were great employees and others who couldn't hack the 24/7 nature of dairy farming, Wagner says.

"I have a lot of mixed feelings about how native help competes with [migrant workers'] ability to work and desire to work," Wagner says. "I have a hard time having sympathy with some of the folks who are unemployed because they haven't sought employment the way these guys do. That's not a general statement. I think people out of work need all the help they can get."

With migrant workers, Wagner adds, "the biggest complaint I receive from them is not getting enough hours."

The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project contends that calling Border Patrol to act as interpreter was a questionable move by state police and undermines trust between migrant communities and law enforcement.

In an email to Troidl about the incident, the Solidarity Project's Brendan O'Neill wrote: "If the result of State Police collaboration with the Border Patrol (whether as interpreter or in another capacity) results in the deportation of immigrants than [sic] the message sent to the immigrant community through this incident, and believe me the word spreads fast, is if you call 911 the border patrol comes and gets you deported."

Troidl wrote to O'Neill that based on his review of the incident, "the Troopers contacted Border Patrol for the sole purpose of assisting as an interpreter so that they could property render assistance if needed. At the time they responded, the Troopers did not know the immigration status of the individual(s) who had answered the return call from dispatch."

Troidl went on: "While the outcome of this incident is unfortunate for the individuals taken into custody by Border Patrol, the Troopers acted in a reasonable manner with public safety being the number one priority. I found nothing to indicate that either of the Troopers involved acted inappropriately or violated our Bias-Free Policing Policy."

Zero Tolerance for Immigration Law Violators.
Report them.

To report an illegal alien, or an employer or farm who hires them, contact the Burlington, Vermont ICE 'TipLine' and ask for the 'Duty Officer'. Tell them you want to "report illegal alien activity". If you cannot speak with a Special Agent from the Investigations Division, ask to speak to a Deportation Officer from the Detention and Removal unit. Officers in these divisions are obligated by law to make a written record of your report.
Burlington, Vermont ICE field office:
866-DHS-2ICE (347-2423)

Small farms and employers unfortunately tend to escape enforcement of VT Labor and VOSHA Safety laws which in the event of something as serious as a deadly accident leaves, you guessed it,the taxpayers liable for worker's compensation death benefits, funeral expenses, and other certain benefits which, unbelieveably, survivors of illegals killed on the job are "entitled to" under Vermont Worker's Compensation Laws.

So bypass local enforcemnt and call the Federal Authorities at ICE or Border Patrol directly if you feel our pandering Governor has compromised and hobbbled our normally legitimate and professional State and Local Law enforcemnt with his "Look the Other Way" policy.

There are legal ways and Programs available for employers in need to hire true "Migrant/Immigrant Workers" not Illegal Aliens as described in this article. But that costs more...

Woody, when was the last time you tried millking 300 cows twice a day? When a farmer needs help, he needs it now. There is no time to be wandering through a bunch of governmental red tape to find a few workers. If you like eating, you can thank undocumented farm workers.


How much of the $9 per hour that you pay these illegal immigrants stays in Vermont? It is sent back to Mexico.
Have you listed your job openings in the Unemployment Office...where unemployed Vermonters have a chance to accept the job..and if not then they can be removed off the Unemployment Rolls?
Sounds like you have been breaking the law for over ten years taking advantage of "paying under the table" to avoid the higher costs of paying for taxes, SSI, UI and other payroll expenses. Another shifting of the tax burden to honest farmers employing legal workers. "Many bring their own papers" how do the others that don't have their I-9s filed?

I hope the State Police never help me like they helped that guy. "Fuck fuck games", yes that's an appropriate way to speak to the public.

The logic in your "argument" for breaking the law is as weak and disingenuous as Farmer Wagner's feeble attempt at defending what he is admiting to doing.

Many unscrupulous and unethical businesses looking to do things on the cheap, can and do use that argument as well (especially when they get caught). But that doesn't make it right, or legal, so it really isn't a valid defense.

If the farmer is filling out I9's is he really trying to cheat the system and pay under the table?

Cows need to be milked on schedule, they can NOT wait (as any nursing mother will tell you!) I am a dairy fanatic but know I could NEVER be a dairy farmer.

It takes both a work ethic and a love for the job, because the animals know when people don't like them. Certainly there might be other ways VT farmers could advertise to native Vermonters, but that often takes time and have you noticed that there are always help wanted ads for farm help?

As for the rest of it, well, there are always cases of "he said, she said", so I'll keep my nose out of that.

Ah, yes. I'm near Church Street and I can literally hear the "Occupy" squatters/cammper/protesters now. I guess they left their illegal encampment in City Hall Park to shout en masse about something. If it's jobs they're looking for, I know somewhere nearby where they can make at least $9/hour, plus housing, doing honest labor. I have a feeling not a single one of them would take it.

BTW, according to yesterday's Free Press, City Hall issued a warning to the Occupiers about their unacceptable behavior in City Hall Park. Sounds like many of them are behaving like straighout pigs, not to mention just bad citizens. But of course Kiss will not enforce the existing laws against living in the park against these people, because they are "politically correct."|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

ReelVermonter, there are several temp places in the area. I suggest instead of breaking the law, one consider hiring a few of them until some permanant help can be found.

Amanda and Mr. Wagner, as it is clear that you both are unaware, the excuse that they gave a SSN doesn't fly. See there is this thing called the interweb. You can get right on it and check and see if a person is legal or illegal. It's called e-verify. Get used to it as it will likely become mandatory.

A lot of money is paid into the system (FICA etc.) for illegal workers and those workers will never be eligible to collect benefits. So not only are we benefiting from them being willing to do work Americans generally won't, their employers who may not realize the SSNs are not legit do often pay into the system for them.
Ask any farmer, it's incredibly hard to find strong, steady, reliable help and it has been for as long as I can remember (which is at least a few decades).

JCarter, please. "Interweb" for a farmer? Just as agriculture is under different child labor laws, I suspect many operations would be exempt from potential e-Verify requirements. Many farmers don't own a computer, much less have internet. Those that do have internet may not be located in DSL or cable internet service areas. Farming is already one of the least lucrative occupations and imposing any additional burden would be ludicrous.

JCarter, any chance you can direct all Vermont farmers to the temp agency that provides farm help? Very few of these jobs are in Chittenden County. The fastest way to purge the country of undocumented workers is to simply stop eating. If there is no market for food, there will be no need for workers to plant it, grow it, harvest it or process it. The undocumented will all return to their native lands where there will be food. Only those in the good ol' USA will starve.

Eric, this isn't 1995. Many of the smaller farms may not have internet or a computer but the larger farms are not running payroll on a notepad with a pencil. Moreover, heck with all the money Leahy sends there way one would think a grant to buy each VT farmer a computer would be a cakewalk for El Porko.

ReelVermonter, Yellow Pages. Sure someone may have to go pick them up and drive, but fricking christ. It is what it is. Don't like it, then don't farm. If you can't be bothered to get pick up a few temps then you don't need them that bad. By hiring illegals the farmer is breaking the law. Is it worth driving 20 miles to go pick up a temp, or would one rather go to jail?

"A lot of money is paid into the system (FICA etc.) for illegal workers and those workers will never be eligible to collect benefits. So not only are we benefiting from them "

Joan, no we don't benefit. If they weren't working someone else would be contributing the same amount. VTer's aren't willing to do the work. That is true, the fix is simple. You either a.) limit welfare and/or unemployment so that people have to go to work whether they want to or not or b.) raise wages and improve conditions so people will want to work. Now, I realize that may require an increase in price paid to farmers. So be it. I would rather pay an extra $1 a gallon and lose a person off from welfare then save a buck and pay for welfare because someone doesn't want to go to work.

Finally, a reminder as some people are still confused on this part. You do not get to pick and choose which laws you want to follow and which you want to ignore. The law is the law and if you are breaking you should be held accountable. They are illegal, the employers know it (or should) and the illegals know it. There is no excuse or justification for blatantly ignoring the law.

Keep drinking that law-abiding kool-ade, JCarter. It has such great flavor.

ReelVermonter, are you are a dairy farmer? Cuz, geez, you seem to know everything there is to know about Vermont farming life.

And your last comment isn't an answer to anything. It's just the equivalent of, "I'm right and you're wrong about illegal immigration, JCarter." JCarter's point is well-taken: employers -- including Vt. farmers -- don't get to break US immigration law because it's convenient.

Another kool-ade drinker. Soon there will be no juice in the Kool-ade as all the fruit dried up on the trees, bushes and vines - no one to pick it. Don't plan a vacation at any US resort as they have closed for lack of employees. But the kool-ade is still there to drink. Gulp!

JCarter, who are these unemployed workers that you think should take up dairy farming? Out of work programmers? Teachers? Anyone who tries that kind of work after 20 years in an office is going to get hurt. Fortunately, the unemployment office is not as bent on inflicting misery as you and the rest of the far right are.

@ "reelvermonter":

Ah, yes. That's quite a substantive argument you make: just calling someone a name (koolaid drinker). Case closed and you win, right? (You're probably not a Vermonter and you're certainly not "reel.")

@ eric:

I know some people who should take a $9/hour job with free housing as a benefit: some of the unemployed youth who are "camping out" right now in Burlington's City Hall Park. Or are you of the belief that only Mexicans are appropriate for this job?

Reelvermonter has a point, if crudely made. Each of us votes and acts based on what is important to us. JCarter is in effect asserting that obedience to authority is more important than the viability of Vermont's dairy industry. Some of us really don't care about anti-immigration ideals and are more interested in seeing Vermont's idyllic landscape protected. Asking anything more of farmers than they already have to do is disgusting.

I disagree with you, ergo, you're drinking the Kool-Aid.

No, I disagree with YOU, ergo, you're not from Vermont.

Some real debate team stars on this blog.

While telling people collecting unemployment to get to work in the dairy fields is a nice thought, it's not that simple. Farm work may not be "skilled" labor but not just anyone can do it. Just the same way that the unemployment office can't send the unemployed to all the VT tech firms that can't find workers; the workers need to be qualified. Finding good help is a challenge to farmers nationwide. If there wasn't a market for illegal migrant workers, we wouldn't have this conversation.

Wait, so guys from Mexico are "skilled" enough to milk cows and drive tractors but the idle youth who are hanging out at City Hall Park strumming their guitars and hating the rich are not?

Nice try.

Caleb, how many of those people occupying City Hall Park are collecting unemployment? Not the recent graduates or long-term unemployed. Those benefits are available to people who were involuntarily terminated from their jobs, not people who never had jobs to begin with because they were in school. In order to collect unemployment, a person needs to have worked for an organization that paid into it. Why are you so bothered about people collecting benefits funded by their own payroll taxes?


Please point where I said anybody occupying City Hall Park is collecting unemployment.

Reading Comprehension 101.

Whether they're collecting unemployment or not, if they're not students and they're unemployed, Chris Wagner has a job for them.


"JCarter is in effect asserting that obedience to authority is more important than the viability of Vermont's dairy industry. "

You are goddamned right I am saying that abiding the laws of this country are more important then a few farms in Vermont. Without laws and rules were are NOT a civilized nation. You may not agree with immigration laws. GFY. I'm sure you can find plenty of Drug dealers that think that anti-drug laws are silly too. We have a system in this country for making laws and changing laws. Try that if you don't agree with one, until it's changed though you still have to abide it or pay the consequences.

As for who do I suggest go work on a farm...I suggest you start delivering welfare checks and unemployment checks and take a look at the people collecting them. If you don't think there are 300-400 people in this state that are capable of doing manual labor your head is way up in the clouds. Moreover, you also seem to assume that because one sits at a desk that they can't possibly be in good enough shape to shovel shit. Ridiculous.

Frankly, I don't care if Farmer Jones hires a bunch of illegals. I just don't want to hear him cry when he gets busted.

"JCarter is in effect asserting that obedience to authority is more important than the viability of Vermont's dairy industry. "

Um, frankly it's rather shocking that you would even suggest otherwise -- that it's ok for an industry to knowingly break the law because it's what makes them "viable." Is economic viability now the touchtone of the decision to comply with the law? You know what would really make the Vermont dairy industry viable? Don't even pay your workers. Don't comply with VOSHA regulations. Don't buy worker's comp. insurance. Beat your workers if they don't work hard enough. Mistreat your cows. Adulterate your milk. The list could go on.

Um, frankly, I really don't care about immigration violations so long as no other laws are broken. Valuing authority over the interest of living things is a mark both of the far right and far left. If cutting those corners means that poor children can have milk, so be it. Unfortunately for you, Governor Shumlin shares this sentiment, which is why he ordered an investigation into the trooper in the incident in Middlesex.

"Valuing authority over the interest of living things is a mark both of the far right and far left."

That's both a dumb cliche and also simply wrong. And an excuse for doing whatever you want whether it's legal or not. It expresses a lazy and selfish attitude.

BTW, you seem to be behind the news curve. The trooper was exonerated. As he should have been. Because he did nothing wrong. The driver of the pickup truck, on the other hand, going 88 in a 65 zone with two illegals in the back seat, was absolutely intending and hoping to get caught, so that he could make a scene.

Exonerated, yes. That doesn't change the fact that the administration will cause a headache for anyone LEO who furthers Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama's law and order agenda. If they're not paying attention to accents or skin color, they won't pick up immigration violations except in extreme conditions, like when someone is caught driving a commercial vehicle and has a foreign licence. If law enforcement is bothering people with accents, they are bound to bother legal immigrants and even citizens for a no-good agenda.

You seem to be behind the news curve yourself. Check it out. Bias free policing is official Vermont policy as of today. Face it, nobody of importance in Vermont cares how much law and order means to you, this is a state that puts compassion above repression.

No, I'm not behind the news curve. I was aware of the old policy and I am aware of the new one. In case you think I'm against bias free policing, I'm not.

But I'm also against people sneaking into this country and against US employers hiring those who do. Like sneaking into this country itself, hiring illegal aliens is against the law. Even in the Guilty Liberal Republic of Vermont. Illegal aliens should be deported if caught, and those who hire them should be prosecuted.

Compassion? My compassion is for the millions of US unemployed, not for the US employers who want to exploit illegal cheap labor. I assume you identify yourself as pro-union? Well, US organized labor backs me on this one.

Don't like the laws? Change 'em.

You all talk about immigration law as if it's this sacred entity. Well, the fact of the matter is that federal immigration law is a patchwork of interest-group influenced bull**** that won't get reformed anytime soon due to the dysfunctionality of the federal government. In the meantime, it is legally impossible to get an agricultural visa to work on a dairy farm in the United States because both H2A and B visas require the work to be "temporary" or "seasonal," and dairy farms require year round labor. What do you expect dairy farms to do, shut down?

First, you overdramatize. Shutting down is not the only option.

Second, yes. Shut down. If they did, the laws would be fixed in 48 hours.

How am I overdramatizing when shutting down would be the default option for a company with no employees? Also, I find your argument that migrant workers are taking jobs away from Americans to be quite disingenuous. Haven't you heard about tomatoes rotting in the fields in Alabama? Arizona's economy is on the verge of collapse because of their immigration law. And fix for the laws, in fact the Obama Administration is making the situation much worse by over-enforcing. The fact is that we depend on migrant labor and we should focus on integrating them into American society, not expelling them.

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