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Undocumented in Vermont: The Hidden Life of a Migrant Farmworker

“Hey, come on in,” I told Carlos. Silhouetted by summer sun, he stood at the front door of my Vermont house.

“No,” he said pointing to his work boots, heavy with mud and manure. “But can you help me?” Carlos was one of the estimated one to 2,000 undocumented, mostly Mexican migrants employed on the state’s dairy farms. The actual number, like most of the workers who entered the country illegally, is hidden. 

Carlos (not his real name) had come to Vermont after a year working construction in Texas, where even gringo bosses speak some Spanish, and where he could blend into the large Latino diaspora and its familiar culture. Vermont is an alien world, with dark winters and light people. When the dairy workers venture off their isolated farms, they stand out and apart. But in an unparceable blend of Yankee pragmatism and ordinary decency, many Vermonters, including police and officials, quietly welcome and often protect them. The farm hands form an essential part of the economy, and truth be told, offer relief from a monotonously white population that tends tolerant and leans smug. 

I met Carlos several years back when, as part of an informal volunteer network, I’d occasionally ferry migrants to medical appointments or to supermarkets, where they buy the kind of calorie-rich junk and processed food that horrifies kale-munching locals. I helped fill out forms enabling them to wire money to family in Mexico, lending my name and return address, and wondering what the IRS would make of my sending thousands of dollars to small towns in Tabasco and Chiapas.

After Vermont approved a special driver’s license not requiring legal status, I taught a few guys to drive by U.S. rules so they could shop for themselves, get a maple creemee at a roadside stand, and visit relatives and friends on other farms.

Several migrants had given me snippets of their tales—always without embellishment, self-pity, or drama. But it was years before Carlos—bright and charming, but guarded—opened up. Perhaps fording the flooded Rio Grande and hiking five days through the Texas desert—helicopters thumping the sky; hunger, thirst, and border patrols stalking the ground below—seemed so common as to be unremarkable, or too painful to recall.

Through Carlos has learned useful and colorfully idiomatic English, he speaks hesitantly, especially with strangers, and misunderstandings are possible. The favor he came to ask that sun-painted day was that I go with him for a “check-up.” “Well,” he hesitated, “to get tested for STI” (sexually transmitted infections). “Are you sick? Do you need to go immediately?” I asked. “No, I’m fine. I just want to get tested. Soon.”

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