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My undocumented friend: Carlos does the work few in Vermont want to do

I met Carlos as part of a volunteer network helping migrants with basic needs and services in Vermont, where their work is vital to the dairy industry. After a trip to Planned Parenthood, he suddenly opened up about his experiences

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 1,000-2,000 undocumented, mostly Mexican immigrants employed on the states dairy farms. The actual number, like most of the workers who entered the country illegally, is hidden.

Carlos 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. In contrast, Vermont was an alien world in which he stood out. But many Vermonters, including police and officials, quietly welcome and often protect migrant dairy workers like him. Immigrants form an essential part of the local economy, and truth be told, they also offer relief from a monotonously white population that tends toward tolerance and leans toward smugness.

I met Carlos several years back when, as part of an informal volunteer network, I ferried immigrants to medical appointments or to supermarkets, where they buy the kind of calorie-rich junk food that horrifies kale-crunching Vermonters. I helped filled 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 drivers license not requiring legal status, I taught a few guys how to drive by US rules so they could shop for themselves, get a maple creemee at a roadside stand, and visit relatives and friends on other farms.

Several 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.

Carlos at work, tending to cows in Vermont. Photograph: Terry J Allen

The favor Carlos had come to ask that 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, Im fine. I just want to get tested. Soon.

I phoned a local clinic, but it required one appointment for paperwork and another for testing. Two days interrupted during haying season is unthinkable for farm workers. When the grass is ready and there is a predicted stretch of sunshine, haying cannot be delayed.

Carlos suggested saving time by going to a doc in a box at a strip mall, so I drove him to one. I asked the receptionist about the cost: $100 for the visit. As Carlos started taking bills from his wallet, I motioned him to stop. And for the lab tests? The young woman rummaged behind the counter. Five hundred dollars, so $600 total, she said with all the animation of one of Carloss cows.

Youre kidding, I nearly shouted. For standard lab tests?

No way, I told Carlos, who was probably deeply embarrassed by me. It wasnt that he couldnt afford it, but I knew how he sweated for that much money, and how the medical system jacked up prices for the uninsured.

I phoned the community health center to compare costs, and the scheduler asked why didnt I go to Planned Parenthood. It had never occurred to me that the organization served men.

Except for a locked front door, security there appeared unobtrusive. Joining three pregnant women in the waiting room, Carlos and I made quite the intriguing couple: an ageing white woman and a handsome young Latino.

When we came to the part of a form on income, Carlos asked me what to do. I said he could report whatever amount he wanted. No, he corrected, do they want hourly, weekly, or what? He knew what I had meant, but with no inclination to cheat, wrote $30,000 a year.

The receptionist quickly scanned the paperwork. We have a sliding scale, she said, and, with obvious pleasure, told Carlos: You just qualify for free services.

Vermont, she told me, is the only state fully covered by the Access Plan which includes birth control, annual exams, STI testing, and treatment and counseling for both men and women who are uninsured and earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level. The policy is concerned with the long-term economic benefit of preventing, diagnosing and treating the spread of communicable diseases that can lead to Aids, cancer, sterility and more.

When Carlos returned from the exam room, he was assured, although a few tests were pending, that he was clean. I tossed him a bag of condoms the office distributes, and we all laughed. As we left, I spied him slipping a $60 donation onto the counter.

In the car home, curiosity overcame discretion. I probed. He hesitated. And then his face lit with pleasure. I have a girlfriend, and she said, No sex until we are both tested.

Now, that is a great girlfriend, I said. Smiling, we rode back under a cloudless sky to the hay awaiting harvest.

The dairy herd subsists through the long, snowy winter on hay grown on the farm and harvested by the immigrant workers. Photograph: Terry J Allen

The last time Vermont had more cows than people, Eisenhower was president. Today there are 625,000 people and 129,000 cows.

Without its Mexican farmhands, much of the states milk industry would probably dry up. Say goodbye to affordable Cabot cheddar; kiss Vermont-sourced Cherry Garcia sweet adios. And farewell to much of the $2.2bn in annual economic activity that dairy brings the state, and which makes up 70%-80% of its agricultural income. In the only state in which more than half of farm income comes from just one commodity, dependence on dairy is undisputed.

A century ago, Vermont was 70% cleared agricultural land, 30% forest. Today, with farming in decline, that ratio is approximately reversed. Ruined by the cost of land and labor, many former farms have been drawn over by malls, ski resorts and summer homes.

Nonetheless, production is up. Jerseys have been replaced by Holsteins that can churn out vast quantities of milk 23,000 gallons a year before their productivity fades and they are ground into hamburger or pet food, or buried in the fields they once fertilized and grazed. The switch to this high-yield breed, along with subsidies and the popularity of Vermont-branded products, has allowed some farmers to survive, and a few to thrive.

What keeps farmers awake at night besides the callous vagaries of weather and fluctuating milk prices that sometimes fall below costs is the lack of cheap, dependable labor. The larger farms have hundreds of cows. With two milkings a day, 12 hours apart, the farm must be staffed 14-16 hours every day. Carloss typical workday starts around at 3am; after a midday break, he works another full shift.

Farmers complain that many local workers cannot tolerate the long hours, low wages and punishing labor through blizzards, rainstorms and summer heat. Indeed, there are few jobs as miserable as trudging through frozen piss and excrement in the pre-dawn dark to milk and tend cows when the thermometer plunges to 20 below zero. Mexican workers are filling a gap and saving the farms.

Carloss first job in the US was construction for a large company in a midsize Texas city. The hourly wages were comparable to dairy, but the potential earnings and the cost of living were not. Farm jobs for migrants include housing and utilities, isolation that brings fewer spending temptations, and an opportunity to work up to 90 hours a week.

Its hard, hard work, but you came to America to make money and go back quick, Carlos says. When I first came from Texas in a van with my cousin and some others, I saw snow for the first time. The next day, Auntie Linda arrived. She speaks Spanish, and all the patrons know her. They all call her and say: We need one guy, two guys. She was a grumpy old woman, a big curser. We laughed at her swearing, but we didnt care. Id like to talk to her today and thank her. She gave me a pair of boots. They went through the whole winter.

Auntie Linda, the human smugglers called coyotes and polleros (chicken farmers), the people who run stash houses, the van drivers who make interstate and cross-country runs and the farmers are all moving parts of a complex network powered by dollars and cellphones.

A small, venal component is the sex traffickers, who, exploiting the loneliness and isolation of the farm workers, import women from cities and drive them to remote farms to service the workers at $60 a trick.

They just bring girls, Mexicans and Colombians, mostly Latinas, but sometimes [women] from here too, Carlos explains reluctantly. They just show up. It could be months between visits, or could be the next weekend. You never know. They never came to our farm, and I know one thing, Im not paying for that. I push for more information. They say its expensive, good, and they like it.

And then, with exasperation and embarrassment: Jesus, why are you asking me about this?

A prostitution ring in Vermont came to light after Alejandro Enrique Young-Hernandez was arrested in 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution. Although the crime could carry a 10-year sentence, he received two years probation, a $100 court fee and the loss of his right to own firearms. His fellow pimp, Jose Tomas Flores-Rocha, who delivered the women to the farms, was convicted of a lesser charge, transporting individuals for prostitution, but served 18 months.

Lined up on each side of the trough, cows stand passively while a Mexican farm worker cleans their udders before attaching milking equipment. Photograph: Terry J Allen

Are you afraid of immigration authorities? I asked Carlos on the trip back from Planned Parenthood.

I used to think about it every day, he said, but now it doesnt matter if they send me back, because thats where I belong. I always tell my parents, Im coming back this December, and they get a piglet to raise for a big party. And then I stay yet another year.

It is not only money, and perhaps a girlfriend, that link Carlos to Vermont, but also the farm itself. Self-reliant and smart, Carlos has advanced from just the hard, dirty work of tending cows. He has made himself valuable by learning to handle the farms large stock of trucks, manure spreaders, balers and other machinery.

His wages rose to $11.30 an hour plus a $150 monthly bonus when milk quality tests high. I work sometimes 70, often 80 hours a week, sometimes 90. Never, never 60 hours a week, Carlos notes with pride. Farm labor, legal and not, is exempt from overtime pay requirements.

When they arrive at a farm, the immigrants are provided social security numbers. They are all fake, says Carlos, matter-of-factly. Somebody just gives you one. To stay legal, farmers withhold and file taxes the benefits of which the worker can never collect in social security or unemployment benefits.

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump called CNNs Erin Burnett naive for suggesting illegal immigrants pay taxes. But nationally, they contribute an estimated $11.64bn a year in just state and local taxes, with at least 50% of undocumented immigrant households filing tax returns, according to the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Vermonts undocumented people pay almost $4m a year in state and local taxes and, at 7.9% of income, contribute slightly more than the effective rate for the top 1% of Americans.

One of the few advantages of lacking a legal agricultural visa which is tied to a specific employer is that unauthorized farm workers can switch farms, relying on a grapevine to avoid abusive bosses. Carlos says that his patron, a tough taskmaster and a hard worker himself, was always fair. Their relationship, however, started badly. When I got here, I didnt know English and it was rough for me, and for him, I think. He would try to tell us what to do [in English] and he would get mad if something was not done how he wanted. It was always our fault. I couldnt explain myself. I think thats what got me to learn English.

Over time, the two men grew reliant on and genuinely fond of each other. Now I know a little English and I can tell him whats wrong. And he always jokes that: I dont know if I liked you better when you didnt know any English. So like, yup, this is what it is. And he always pays us on time.

Some farmers never pay more than pay $7.50 an hour. I know a guy that the boss didnt pay him, just fired him when he asked for money. But Migrant Justice went, and the farmer had to pay, Carlos says, referring to a local activist group.

That group and others have also intervened to address farm workers living conditions. Some share a room in the bosss house, some live in poorly insulated and dilapidated trailers or crammed into filthy bunkhouses. The worst off sleep in the barn. I know a farm where they almost sleep with the cows, says Carlos.

Carlos and the other workers at his farm have their own rustic, but comfortable, house with TV, wifi, cable, a stove and a refrigerator.

It is these free accommodations, heat and other utilities, along with long hours, that facilitate the real goal: putting money aside for a better future for themselves and family back home. Despite one really dumb purchase of that no-good Mustang (he is, after all, a 22-year-old male), Carlos has been able to save and send back enough to buy land not much, build my house, buy 10 cows and help out his older siblings and parents.

Out-of-pocket expenses, if the workers are lucky, are pared down to the food they cook for themselves, phone service and clothing. Id drive guys to their store of choice, Walmart, where they bought up jeans made in Mexico that they said cost less than they would have back home. Once, I took a worker who was returning the next day to Mexico to the fancy store, JCPenney, to buy presents to bring his wife. The saleswoman stalked us nervously as we examined filmy lingerie and nearly intervened when he held a red and black lace bra up to a mannequin to gauge size.

Long hours facilitate the real goal: putting money aside for a better future for themselves. Photograph: Vermont immigration piece/Terry J Allen

A week or so after the Planned Parenthood visit, I asked Carlos, promising anonymity, to talk about his journey north. He was 16, he said, just out of high school with a bit of technical school when he took the two-day bus ride from Tabasco to Reynosa, a bitter, hardscrabble border city, deep in poverty, guns, gangs and drug violence.

There, he and his older brother met the man who might lead them safely to a job in America, into the hands of border agents, or to death in the desert. These coyotes ply the ragged edge of capitalism. Some are professional guides simply doing an illegal and dangerous job for which they expect high pay; some are con men bent on exploitation.

If you come to the border alone, you will always find a coyote, Carlos told me, but you never know if it is someone who is reliable or will just take your money.

One way to mitigate the risk of rip-offs and scams is by making arrangements ahead of time. Five years before, my father made it to the states and knew which coyotes to trust, said Carlos. In Reynosa, someone would phone us and tell us the color of the car or truck, red or green, that would take care of us. But we never, ever communicated with the coyote himself in any way until the moment we were on the border and we met in a bus station parking lot.

My coyote was one of the better ones, Carlos said. But all of them, its just about the money.

And even the better ones cannot guarantee a successful crossing even before Trump whipped up anti-immigrant fervor and enforcement zeal.

Its a risk we all take, said Carlos, and you never know how it will end.

Before they left Reynosa, Carlos paid his coyote $500 and arranged for someone to deliver $1,500 once he reached a safe house in Texas, far enough from the border that he could blend in or move on. They always need that money punctually, or it is dangerous. They can do anything to you.

In Reynosa, the coyote took Carlos and his brother to a series of houses. When they are ready to cross the river, they gave me a life vest, and we start to walk. It had been raining a lot, so the river was very high. It was during the day, because in the night, there were others crossing.

The coyote led them to an inflatable boat and asked who knew how to swim. I told them I didnt, and thats what you are supposed to say so they dont throw you in the river. The Rio Grande was swollen far into the trees on the US side, and the dozen travelers, including three or four women, plus the coyote, had to leave the boat, which couldnt navigate through the trees, and walk through chest-high water.

Carlos brought aspirin and lemons, in case we run out of water. The coyote gave them food to carry. The meals, like beans, were all cans. And a lot of bread, tortillas.

Once on dry land, with the thwack of helicopters always, always beating the sky above, they walked rapidly, seeking cover while trying to evade sensors in the ground, cameras and law enforcement patrols. After several more hours, the group reached a road where we met a little truck. And we drove through a normal neighborhood to a house where there were about 30 women, men and children, not only Mexicans, but also Colombians and Hondurans.

They gave us food and a place to sleep. And some clothes and shoes, because ours were wet. You just take whatever fits you. The next day, they boarded a truck that dropped them in the desert.

The Border Patrol calls the area the Rio Grande or McAllen region. Spanish explorers had a more descriptive name: El Desierto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead.

Carlos became quiet, reached for the glass of water, and stared at the table. Then, as if a switch had flipped, he began talking rapidly.

I walked for five days, he said, and when he saw me wince, added with annoyance at my pity: Thats nothing compared to people I know 15 days, 16 days in the desert, a month. Thats why people die, or they go with the wrong coyote, and then someone gets tired, they just leave them there.

I saw a woman who was exhausted, and she was in our group. The coyote said: Its her or all of us. She was in her 30s. He didnt really want to leave her where no one would find her, so we went to a place where he thought the Border Patrol might pass. He gave her a bottle of water and left her there. She said nothing, didnt even cry.

Hours after we left her, we started to hear footsteps like someone is behind us and thought it was immigration. It was her. I cant explain it, how she did it. She was almost about to die when we left her. Somehow she came.

After three days, we ran out of water. I remember that was horrible, and then food was getting scarce. I was doing fine, but my brother, he was the one who was very exhausted, and a friend of mine too. But we continue and continue. And the coyote, he always says: We just have to get to that light. He tries to give us hope. We are so fucking close, he says, and: Are you ready to make dollars?

We were just exhausted. I remember I got dizzy a little and felt like we are walking in the same way all the time.

And then we waited at the side of the road. Waiting and waiting and helicopters are always flying. And it was terrifying. Then a truck shows up and quick, we all ran into it. I have never seen Carlos talk so freely, so long.

For hours, we couldnt move. And that was horrible in the truck, all packed together. And all like this, like this. He drew himself into a tight knot. I still remember a child, maybe he was 14, crying. He says he just wants a little bit of water, but they cant stop. No, you are almost there. Almost there.

And then we got to a house, and there is a guy at a table, and he is phoning people, saying: Hey, we got your son, your daughter. My dad sent someone with money to pick us up. And that friend took us to an apartment.

Eventually, through a network, Carlos found the construction job and stayed in Texas for a year, until he decided Vermont was worth a try.

So I have been here five years, he said. I never thought I would stay that long, but I got used to it. I like Vermont. The people are really nice, but, he grinned, the winter, not so much.

This story was based on conversations in Spanish and English, and one interview was aided by a bilingual interpreter. Some names have been changed, and quotes have been edited for clarity.

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