Vermont Plans to Send Cash to Immigrant Farmworkers Left Out of Stimulus | Civil Eats
Eli, one of the Vermont undocumented farmworkers.

Vermont Plans to Send Cash to Immigrant Farmworkers Left Out of Stimulus

Migrant farmworkers are crucial to the state’s dairy industry, and a new initiative offers relief funds to make up for a lack of federal support.

When the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the country into upheaval last March, Eli, an immigrant who had worked on dairy farms in Vermont for five years, was on the other side of the country.

Eli and her husband had traveled to Los Angeles to meet her daughter, who was coming from Mexico. But, as the country shut down, they couldn’t find work in California and wouldn’t be able to meet her daughter after all. Eli was two months pregnant at the time, so she and her husband returned to Vermont. But the farms there, facing plummeting milk prices and wary of bringing in new workers, had stopped hiring. Eli’s family struggled to find jobs and a place to live, until a friend helped them out. But when the federal government dispersed $1,200 in stimulus money, they didn’t receive any support.

“It was pretty hard to make ends meet,” Eli said.

Now, Eli, who asked that we not use her last name, is among thousands of immigrants who will soon get coronavirus relief money from the state of Vermont. The state’s migrant farmworker population is small but critical to its dairy industry, so last fall legislators approved stimulus payments matching those in the CARES Act for residents who didn’t receive them in the spring because of their immigration status. Eligible adults will get a one-time payment of $1,200, and children under age 17 will get $500.

Vermont is not the first state to pass such a measure. Due to the exclusion of many immigrants from federal COVID-19 aid, relief for at least 1.2 million of the nation’s farmworkers has been scattershot across the country, depending on what measures state and local governments, and local organizations, have set up. The advocates pushing for this form of stimulus say it’s not just a matter of supporting the immigrants who work in the food system through the crisis, but about recognizing their rights.

“People were calling us essential workers, right? ‘Heroes of the pandemic,’” Eli explained in Spanish through an interpreter. “But they were not treating us fairly.”

Patchwork Aid for Farmworkers

Farmworkers have long been vulnerable to unsafe working conditions, unstable housing, and food insecurity, Alexis Guild of advocacy group Farmworker Justice noted.

“Anything that’s happening across the United States is exacerbated in farmworker communities and rural communities because the various socioeconomic factors that are at play,” she said.

Working conditions for farmworkers heighten their risk of exposure to COVID-19, she said, noting lack of access to handwashing stations and protective equipment, as well as crowded transportation and living conditions. Without paid sick leave, it’s hard for farmworkers to get tested for the virus, and to isolate when they’ve been exposed or are ill, she said. Farmworkers are also ineligible for unemployment insurance.

While employment in agriculture has been more stable through the pandemic than other sectors, such as hospitality, the Migration Policy Institute found that unemployment at the national level among agriculture workers reached 7.4 percent in July 2020, up from 4.6 percent the previous year.

Undocumented workers—who comprise roughly half of the 2.4 million farm laborers in the country—were not eligible for the payments. The initial federal stimulus denied payments not only to undocumented immigrants, but also to their household members who were citizens or permanent residents. The second stimulus, passed in December, expanded eligibility to those in mixed-status households.

A few states have offered direct financial aid to undocumented people. Washington state launched an immigrant relief fund in October that provides households with up to $3,000. California offered two $500 relief payments, or a total of $1,000 per household, to undocumented immigrants in May. Then, in January, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed an additional $600 stimulus program for low-income households, which would be available for undocumented taxpayers.

Some local governments offered publicly funded financial assistance regardless of immigration status, including Seattle and Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. In other places, like Pennsylvania, organizations sought donations to set up relief funds for immigrants. But without access to federal relief, Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute said, many immigrants have relied primarily on local food pantries, churches, private charities, and mutual aid funds for help. The extent of the financial impact of the crisis on immigrant families may not yet be fully clear, she said.

“There are eviction moratoriums in place, but when those eventually expire, I think we’ll see that a lot of immigrant families, and a lot of U.S.-born families, that won’t be able to catch up on their rent or their utility bills,” she said.

Critical to Dairy Farms

When Eli and her husband returned to Vermont last spring, the dairy industry, and dairy workers, were facing turmoil. The COVID-19 shutdown caused the price of milk to plummet. By September, 20 dairy farms in the state had shut down.

“Our dairy farms, especially our larger and medium-sized dairy farms, would not be able to milk their cows without migrant farm labor.”

“A lot of people were left without a job,” said Abel Luna from the Vermont farmworker advocacy group Migrant Justice. And because many workers get housing with their jobs, farm closures left workers without places to live. Even on farms that stayed open, workers saw their hours cut.

Eli’s husband finally has a job, but it’s at a small dairy farm and the hours aren’t consistent. “It’s on and off,” she said.

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The couple’s baby arrived in September, and Eli, who hasn’t worked since last February, is taking care of her young daughter full-time.

Around the time the first federal stimulus payments were released, Migrant Justice started to push for COVID-19 relief for farmworkers in Vermont. Farmworkers in the area posted photographs and videos highlighting their role in Vermont communities and the economy, and calling on state officials to include them in financial support.

A campaign to support stimulus and covid-19 relief payments for undocumented workers.

Screenshot from a campaign to get support for undocumented workers.

State lawmakers took notice. But initial discussions to offer relief to immigrants last spring were stymied by budget concerns and restrictions on federal funding, said state senator Ruth Hardy.

Hardy, a Democrat, represents Addison County, where many of the state’s largest dairy farms dot rolling meadows abutting the Green Mountains. Vermont’s immigrant farmworker population is small, estimated by Migrant Justice to be about 1,250. But Hardy says they’re vital to the industry, which is responsible for an estimated $2.2 billion of economic activity in Vermont.

“Our dairy farms, especially our larger and medium-sized dairy farms, would not be able to milk their cows without migrant farm labor,” Hardy said.

In August, when the state’s finances stabilized, Republican Governor Phil Scott proposed setting up a $2 million fund to provide relief for those who were excluded from the CARES stimulus due to immigration status. Lawmakers in the Democrat-led Legislature upped the program to $5 million—a number that’s expected to be enough to support the estimated 4,000 eligible adults and 1,000 children in Vermont.

Meeting People Where They Are

Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first executive director of racial equity, was a proponent of the immigrant stimulus fund early in the pandemic. Davis heads the state’s Racial Equity Advisory Panel, which was created by Governor Scott in 2018 to address “systemic racial disparities in statewide systems of government.” A member of Scott’s cabinet, Davis told Civil Eats that it’s important to ensure that all state residents have support to weather the COVID-19 crisis.

“These are people who contribute to the social fabric of our communities, certainly to the economy of the state. They’re Vermonters, and they were left behind by the federal government,” Davis said.

To solve Vermont’s stimulus equity program, the state tried to set up a minimally invasive process, Davis added.

“We just want to know enough information in order to get you paid, and in order to make sure that the program is being utilized fairly,” she said.

“These people contribute to the social fabric of our communities, to the economy of the state. They’re Vermonters, and they were left behind by the federal government.”

Applications opened in January, with the nonprofit Vermont Community Foundation running the fund, in collaboration with organizations that have relationships with immigrant communities across the state. Application materials are available in nine languages, and Indra Acharya, who is managing the project, said personal information about applicants will not be shared with the state. The independent structure aims to reach people wary of interacting with the government, he noted.

“The process is designed in a way so that we meet people where they are and we support them in the most accessible way possible,” Acharya said.

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While checks are the preferred method of distribution, the payments are also available in cash—a provision to help people who might not have bank accounts, Acharya said. Two partner organizations—the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity—will set up a system where recipients can come to the office to pick up their stimulus payments. Migrant Justice, which works with people who live on dairy farms in rural parts of the state, will deliver money in cash to people’s homes.

Eli said the application was straightforward and easy to fill out. She chose to receive cash, which she sees as more practical than a check.

More Relief To Come?

With the Biden administration now in office, Congress is working on a new coronavirus relief package. But Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute thinks it’s unlikely eligibility for future stimulus would be extended beyond mixed status households, so many undocumented farmworkers will still likely be left out. However, the President’s coronavirus relief proposal includes $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments.

“That could enable more states and more cities to provide different kinds of aid to immigrant families, regardless of immigration status,” Gelatt said.

The Biden administration has also recently unveiled a major immigration reform proposal that would offer permanent residency, and a path to citizenship to farmworkers and other immigrants who worked essential jobs during the pandemic.

In Vermont, however, neither Hardy nor Davis were aware of proposals at this point to extend COVID-19 relief payments for immigrants in the future.

Luna, of Migrant Justice, said the stimulus payments will help farmworkers in Vermont put away savings if they’ve worked reduced hours or had unsteady work. They may also use the funds to support their families in Vermont and in Mexico, where the pandemic has hit people hard.

For Eli, the creation of the stimulus equity fund was a victory for the migrant farmworker community. While the payments will help her family buy food and help them send support to her daughter in Mexico, she says the fund’s larger significance as a milestone for recognizing immigrant farm laborers in Vermont is matter most.

“It sets the precedent that we’re here, and we need to be taken into account when talking about Vermont,” she said.

Elizabeth Hewitt is a journalist based in the Netherlands and Vermont. She's a former editor and reporter for VTDigger.org where she covered the Vermont state legislature and reported on Congress. Her work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Slate, PRI's The World, and elsewhere. Read more >

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