Migrant farm workers detained at Woodsville Walmart

Valley News 
Published: 4/24/2018 2:37:05 PM

A sense of unease spread throughout the migrant workforce at the Upper Valley’s dairy farms over the weekend, in the wake of the detention of two undocumented dairy farm workers by federal Border Patrol agents on Friday at the Walmart in Woodsville.

The individuals were taken into custody during “routine patrol operations” in Woodsville, according to Brad Brant, the special operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton Sector, in an emailed statement on Monday.

“On two separate occasions, two individuals were encountered. During a brief consensual encounter, it was determined that neither subject had valid immigration documents which would allow them to stay or remain in the United States,” he wrote.

“The subjects were taken in custody, and ... placed in removal proceedings.”

The two people worked at dairy farms in the Upper Valley, one in Vermont, one in New Hampshire, according to one of their employers.

That farm owner said on Monday that the action sent shock waves throughout the workforce.

“It’s terrible for morale,” the farmer said. “We were having a going-away party for one fellow when we got the word. Well, it was no party.”

That detained worker, described as being in their late 20s, was driven by a Cuban-born American citizen to Walmart at about 1:30 p.m. to do some shopping, the farmer said. While there, they were approached by agents, who asked for identification, and then took the worker away.

“They got profiled,” said the farmer, who asserted that they check migrant workers’ paperwork at their farm. “I was just up there today and nobody approached me. What a shame.”

The arrested dairy farm workers had no connection to each other, and went to Walmart individually to do some shopping, the farmer said.

Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based advocacy group, estimated last year that 1,500 undocumented migrants make up a majority of the Vermont farm workforce, and dairy farmers in northern New England have said they couldn’t survive without the dependable labor the migrant workforce provides.

Grafton County Commissioner Linda D. Lauer, a former state representative who patronizes that Walmart, said the county has no role in immigration enforcement, but that she had mixed feelings about the news.

“It’s a difficult situation,” she said. “On a personal level, it’s disconcerting that racial profiling could be used as an excuse to pick someone up. But from a county commissioner standpoint, I understand Border Patrol has a job to do.”

Brant cited federal law that allows the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to “interrogate any alien or person believed to be an alien as to his right to be or to remain in the United States.”

He said that although “most Border Patrol work is conducted in the immediate border area, agents have broad law enforcement authorities, including the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence.”

Will Lambek, a staff member at Migrant Justice, said that, although most area residents aren’t aware of such detentions, they happen all the time.

“We’re seeing an average of about one (Vermont-based) farm worker arrested by ICE Border Patrol each week,” he said, noting that a migrant worker was arrested while shopping at a Newport, Vt., Walmart last month.

Lambek said the group is working with the family members of the detained workers, who he said are being held awaiting bail hearings in the Strafford County Department of Corrections in Dover.

The second detained worker, from a New Hampshire dairy farm, has many extended family members throughout the Upper Valley, who are concerned, Lambek said.

Brant did not include the names of the workers in his statement, and Lambek said he could not release them without permission from their families.

Lambek said the extent to which a judge is willing to lower bail often dictates the ability of a detained migrant to stay in the country.

“They may or may not be released from detention on bond. Regardless, they will be in deportation proceedings, and it’s a much more expedited process when you’re in detention,” he said.

Arrests and deportations have been carried out as a bipartisan effort under several administrations preceding that of President Donald Trump, according to Lambek.

“However, we are seeing an increase in arrests and aggressive behavior by ICE and Border Patrol in our region” since Trump’s election, a development Lambek called significant.

“That’s taken away some of the gains that immigrant communities have made in recent years to try to live full lives,” he said.

“The impact day to day is people deciding not to go to the store, not to bring their kids to school, not go to a park or go out to a movie, but to live as a virtual prisoner on your farm.”

(Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com.)

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