Vermont Breaks Ground in Health Coverage for Migrant Workers

By Yvonne Yen Liu for New America Media

Vermont, land of rolling green hills dotted with black and white Holsteins and picturesque red barns. White people, everywhere, lots of them. Home of state-sanctioned town hall meetings that are models for participatory democracy. And now, the first state in our republic to enact universal health care for all. Two weeks ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law H. 202, “An act relating to a single-payer and unified health system.” It’s the first state to plunge into a single-payer system to implement national health care reform, which Harvard economist William S. Hsiao found was the best method to both reign in spiraling costs and diminish disparities.

Nationally, the need is perhaps more dire now than ever as safety net hospitals close down across the country. These hospitals are often places of last resort for care for the uninsured and for undocumented immigrants—populations that are disproportionately comprised of low-income people of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44.4 percent of Latinos lack insurance, as well as 28.5 percent of black people and 21.2 percent of Asian Americans. In contrast, 16.5 percent of whites don’t have coverage.

Vermont takes one bold step towards reversing these disparities by extending coverage to the thousands of undocumented workers who toil in obscurity, hidden by the state’s rural isolation. That victory comes after a two-year, people-led movement to fight for single-payer care, under the banner of Healthcare is a Human Right—an effort that included a heroic, last-ditch campaign by the Vermont Workers Center to repeal an amendment that would have excluded undocumented workers.

Workers like Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz, who traveled a long way to toil without rights on Vermont’s farms. Santiz Cruz’s relatives and friends told him of opportunities to work in dairy farms—it would be hard work and a lonely life, but he could save money to send back to the village of San Isidro, in the Chiapas mountains, where he supported his parents and two siblings. So in early 2009, Santiz Cruz made the trek of over 3,000 miles, stopped at the Mexican border for 20 days before heading North.

His new home, framed by snow-capped Green Mountains to the east and New York’s Adirondacks to the west, was so different from Chiapas. But Santiz Cruz found work at a dairy farm in Franklin County and used his earnings in the initial months to repay the thousands of dollars he owed to the coyotes, as smugglers are called, who helped him cross the border.

One night two years ago, close to Christmas, Santiz Cruz’s coworkers found him dead in the barn. His clothing had gotten caught in a gutter cleaner, a chain-driven motor machine that scrapes out the gutter where cow waste collects. Unable to extricate himself, he was pulled into the motor and strangled to death. Santiz Cruz was only 20 years old.

Santiz Cruz’s death was a wake-up call to local residents that the farmworker community needed support. Migrant farmworkers, most hailing from Mexico or Guatemala, are a relatively new population in Vermont. They began fulfilling the need for labor on small family farms in the state roughly 10 years ago, after children of Vermont farmers chose to not follow the path of their parents into a profession that is increasingly hard to sustain. In 2009, 33 family dairy farms closed down. Those that remain open depend on migrant labor. A third of Vermont’s farmworkers are from Chiapas, many are indigenous Tojolabal, said Brendan O’Neill, cofounder of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project.

The dairy industry in particular relies heavily on imported labor, with most farms employing one to two workers, the largest with 10 workers. Most of those workers are undocumented, like Santiz Cruz, having traveled north out of economic need; others come through guest worker programs. Farmworkers in Vermont earn anywhere from $5 to $10 an hour, the average is $7, working 12 to 15 hour days. Most stay for under two years, sending remittances home, before returning themselves.

These workers have until now gone without access to health care, without oversight of their working conditions for safety and health violations, and without recourse to other services that our social safety net extends to most of our citizens. (Well, it’s now a fight to preserve those services for anyone in this age of budget cuts). A 2007 report by the Vermont Department of Health found that farmworkers face many barriers to health care, including lack of language translation, transportation to providers, and fear of deportation.

“People live with bad injuries, through sickness; they don’t go to see doctors, because of fear of deportation,” explained O’Neill. “Up at the border, we have a really tense ICE presence: [it’s] pretty common to talk to workers close to the border who literally never leave the farm. [They’ve] been there for two years and never stepped foot off the farm.”

As the migrant labor force continues expanding, the problems caused by their isolation from health care, among other services, is becoming more critical.

“We’re seeing more undocumented workers in different industries. Primarily, up til now, they were in the dairy industry, but now they’re at vegetable farms and doing construction,” said James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center. “We’ve operated a workers rights hotline since 1998. We occasionally got calls [from undocumented workers] and they’ve increased, despite the fact that up til now all our materials are in English. Still, somehow, people find our number.”

The number of Latino farmworkers in Vermont peaked between 2,000 to 2,500, in 2005, according to Cheryl Mitchell, cofounder of the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition and former deputy secretary for Vermont’s Agency of Human Services. The population has gradually decreased as border control has stepped up efforts. With 3.9 percent of Vermont’s total population being people of color, it’s easy to target anyone not white. “Vermont is such a homogenous state, so the potential for racial profiling is scary,” said Mitchell.

Five years ago, at the first public forum on farmworker solidarity, organized by Mitchell’s Addison County Farm Worker Coalition, the Mexican consulate reported that Vermont at the time had the most number of deportations per capita among all states in New England.

After Santiz Cruz’s death, local Vermonters organized a candlelight vigil in his honor. However, fellow farmworkers were afraid to attend, concerned that the border patrol would be present. O’Neill and other organizers with the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project raised funds to bring Santiz Cruz’s body to his home in Chiapas for burial. They also created a film, “Silenced Voices,” about their journey to San Isidro with Santiz Cruz’s coffin. The village initially subsisted off of growing coffee, but was unable to sustain itself when global coffee prices fell and free trade agreements (like NAFTA) eliminated Mexican-government subsidies.

For now, O’Neill and his colleagues try to establish links between rural Vermont and the mountain villages of Chiapas—lands separated by vast distances, but united by farmers and workers who struggle under the same forces of global capitalism.

The victory to include undocumented farmworkers in universal health care is a temporary one. Haslam, of the Vermont Workers Center, anticipates more fights ahead. “What we’re doing in Vermont is going on the offensive for human rights,” he said, “building a proactive movement, not just defending what we have, but pushing for and really turning things around.”


  1. ana on June 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    VERMONT,CONGRATULATIONS! This is Wonderful,and very much needed,and right on time! The Mounting Financial Crises Has Led To Cuts in HealthCare,Education,Police and Fire Services,as Well as other Social Service Programs. The States are in Such Dire Conditions. This is a Great Humanitarian Effort!!! We All Welcome H.202!!! Other States Should Join Forces!!!

  2. Vashti Winterburg on June 21, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    It’s a pleasure to read that there are places in America where compassion still exists, especially for those who work long, hard hours, frequently for little pay, so that the rest of us can live a pretty nice life at their expense.
    Most first world countries that one visits the national health care systems are available, often for free, if needed. It’s good to see Vermont follow in this tradition.