It's not unusual for Laura O'Brien to get a call from a migrant farmworker who needs, for example, a ride to the grocery store or to Western Union so they can wire money back to Mexico for a sick child. But the deacon and member of Charlotte Congregational Church UCC in Charlotte, Vt., spends most of her volunteer time giving the rural community's dairy farm workers rides to and from Migrant Justice meetings and events. Through these meetings, the migrant workers have the opportunity to discuss their hardships with O'Brien and the other volunteers and activists who care about their plight and want to do what they can to help.
"Vermont is so rural and the farms are so spread out that the workers live very isolated lives," O'Brien explains. "One of the big things [Migrant Justice] has is a need for people to provide transportation for these farmworkers."
Migrant Justice is an organization that aims to build the voice, capacity and power of the migrant farmworker community and engage community partners in social justice and human rights advocacy. O'Brien and a few members of her congregation have been involved with the organization since 2011, after Charlotte Congregational UCC hosted a bilingual church service for some of the area's migrant workers and then had a meal with some of them afterward. She found out about Migrant Justice, completed its training program and has provided transportation, advocacy and basic human compassion ever since.
"We shared a meal and it was very energizing," O'Brien said. "After that experience, just that little bit of contact with the farmworkers, I learned more about their situation and it made me want to get more involved."
Most of Vermont's migrant workers are 16- to 30-year-old men from Mexico who are employed by the dairy farms. The work is hard, the hours are long, and the conditions are dirty, which is why there are few local people willing to do the work. Many of the smaller farms simply can't compete with the larger milk producers, so the farmers get more cows to increase production, meaning longer days for the workers.
There are some benefits to dairy farm work. The farms typically provide their employees with free housing, which eliminates the daily commute, and the work is year-round and steady because cows always need to be milked. But without driver's licenses and modes of transportation, the workers have few opportunities to leave their rural dwellings during their little free time. When they do venture out, they are in constant fear of being caught by immigration officials because they stand out from Vermont's mostly white population. And since most migrant workers come to the U.S. alone, they face physical, emotional and spiritual isolation, said O'Brien. This is where programs like Migrant Justice come in – not only to help them get where they need to go, but also by helping change the system.
"It's an increased fear on their part. They think, ‘If I leave my farm, am I going to get stopped by immigration? What's going to happen because I don't blend in with the majority of people who live here?'" said O'Brien. "Organizations like Migrant Justice, along with allies like the faith community and activists, have started to change that a little bit and encourage farm workers to come out of the shadows and speak up about what's going on and get their basic human rights met."
Making sure these basic rights are met is the ultimate goal of Migrant Justice, and advocacy is an important part of the organization. The group meets with local and national legislators to address relevant issues, often bringing a group of farmworkers and a translator with them so lawmakers can hear the stories straight from the source. In fact, O'Brien drove a group to Vermont's statehouse in Montpelier last week to speak to a group of congressmen about driver's license legislation introduced Dec. 2012, and the group is attending a meeting of migrant workers and their allies in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12-13 to discuss the recent immigration reform bills introduced by President Obama and a group of bipartisan senators. Migrant Justice is also working to encourage Vermont-based companies like Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream to help improve the dairy farm industry through actions like paying a premium for locally sourced milk.
"Since you can't sit around and wait for federal laws to change, you can take a look at what is going on right now and what you have power to change," said O'Brien.
While the situation is complex and even controversial, volunteers like O'Brien and groups like Migrant Justice are making progress. And with President Obama and Congress putting forth bipartisan effort toward comprehensive immigration reform, there is no better time for such groups to speak out. But O'Brien believes the faith community could make a significant impact if they came together as one voice. While Charlotte Congregational UCC provides a welcoming atmosphere and has built a sense of community with the area's migrant workers, O'Brien says there is still more that could be done by her church and all churches to truly advocate for the cause.
"The dream in Vermont is that this would happen," said O'Brien, of the faith community rallying together. "But we are not at that phase yet. We are just starting to get going on this."