(Host) When federal authorities conducted a national round-up of illegal immigrants last month, the crackdown hit hard on a family farm in Corinth.
Agents arrested a Mexican couple who had lived and worked on the farm for 18 months.
The government says anyone in the country illegally is subject to arrest. But the farmers say the only thing the Mexicans were guilty of is trying to make a better life.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Milking machine sounds)
(Dillon) It’s time for the afternoon milking at the White family farm in Corinth. The chores take a little longer these days. That’s because one third of the workforce was sent back to Mexico.
(White) “Jose was here, I used to milk mornings, and Jose would milk in the afternoons. That made it good, at least we got a break or we’d be doing field work while he was milking in the afternoon.”
(Dillon) Charlie White is 50 years old, lean and energetic. He’s used to hard work, and he gets the most from his 185 cows. These immaculate and friendly Holsteins are among the top producers in Orange County.
The White farm is postcard beautiful. Cows graze beside ancient stone walls. Green pastures slope down from tree covered hills. And just down the quiet Cookeville road is the tiny Corinth Post Office. That’s where federal agents kept the farm under surveillance.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Charlie White tells the story.
(White) “First time they were snooping around here they didn’t really make any contact with us. But we were just suspicious that’s what it was, because they were watching the farm with binoculars from the road, and kept driving by slow. They actually went down and sat by the Post Office with their car aimed toward the highway, like they were waiting for somebody.”
(Dillon) They were waiting for 29-year-old Jose Zacarias. He’s from Mexico, and like 2,000 other Mexicans, he filled a void in the Vermont farm economy. Farmers say it’s almost impossible to find Americans who want to work the long hours on dairy farms, so they’ve hired Mexicans instead.
Although he had paperwork that showed he was here legally, Zacarias had in fact been deported before. But he had a North Carolina driver’s license, and a car registered in Vermont.
The car turned out to be trouble. The immigrant enforcement agents told White they found the farm worker through motor vehicles records.
Most of the Mexicans in Vermont live an underground existence, rarely leaving the farms where they live. But Charlie and his wife Elaine say Jose wanted a car, because he hoped to live like anybody else
(White) “He wanted to be like an American. That’s what did him in. Yeah, that’s what did him in. It seems like we’re saying it’s okay for these people to be here if they’re kind of under the radar. If they’re willing to live in this country and not have their wife and children here, it’s okay.”
(Dillon) Jose Zacarias was arrested on June 9th as part of a national round up of illegal immigrants. His wife Rosa was also taken. Their two children, ages 3 and 5, went to a relative’s house near Montpelier.
Over the last year and a half, the couple and their children had become part of the White family. Elaine was teaching Rosa English and she was teaching her Spanish. It was pretty comical, Elaine says. And both Whites had a soft spot for the two little kids.
(White) “Like when the kids had birthdays, Elaine baked cakes for them. You know we took them strawberry picking, things like that, trying to show them a little appreciation for their hard work.”
(Dillon) So when the children were separated from their parents, Elaine and Charlie first got upset, then they started working the phone.
They were worried because Jose was in a detention center in New Hampshire. His wife was in jail in Boston. And it looked like they’d be deported without their kids.
Charlie White recalls one conversation with a federal official.
(White) “They’re going to be loaded onto a plane, taken back to Texas, dumped off, and that the kids weren’t their responsibility. And that somebody up here would have to get the kids back to them. That’s how he put it.”
(Dillon) Finally, Elaine White called Senator Patrick Leahy’s office. A caseworker contacted the deportation office and assured the Whites that the family would be sent home together. Elaine White knows not all illegal aliens get that kind of help.
(White) “In all likelihood, had we not, especially Charlie who called the consulate every few days, had that not occurred, there’s no doubt in my mind they would have deported these people without their children.”
(Dillon) Jose and Rosa were swept up in a national crackdown called Operation Return to Sender. About 2,100 illegal aliens were rounded up, many with long arrest records for violent crime.
One hundred and five of the fugitive aliens were arrested in Massachusetts, One hundred and twenty-four in Connecticut, nine in New Hampshire – and two in Vermont – the two Mexicans working on a small hill farm in Corinth.
(Chadbourne) “As it turns out, both the husband and the wife had been deported on two previous occasions.”
(Dillon) Bruce Chadbourne is field director for detention and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New England.
(Chadbourne) “I’m sending a message that if you are removed from the United States and you come back to New England, we’re going to be looking for you. And if you have a criminal record, then we’re going to try to prosecute you for re-entry. We’re trying to establish this deterrent.”
(Dillon) Zacarias didn’t have a record for any violent crimes, but he was considered a fugitive because of the previous deportations.
One month after the arrest, Elaine White picked up the two kids, and drove them to Logan Airport in Boston for the one-way flight back to Mexico.
(White) “I was carrying the little girl, and had the little boy by hand. And a few minutes later I was told that the parents were by the next door down. I walked them down to where the parents were and handed Emily to her mother and took Ricardo to his dad. It was a very happy, emotional reunion, with all of us crying.”
(Dillon) At the airport, Elaine says Jose looked haggard and worried. She questions a system that makes it a crime to cross the border for a better life.
(White) “Anyone who knew Jose is just amazed that this could happen. He was just the sweetest person, certainly not a criminal. I don’t know anyone of us who lived in a country where we made four dollars a day. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t try to get to a better situation. In my mind, that’s the only crime he committed.”
(Scraping sound of Charlie shoveling feed to his cows)
(Dillon) Down at the barn, Charlie White tries to keep up with chores on a sweltering afternoon. He shovels feed to the heifers while his son Elijah starts the milking.
Inside the barn, large fans keep the air moving and cool for the cows. Charlie says that without his farmhand, he and his son are working some long days, even by farmer standards.
(White) “Well, Elijah and I work about 5 in the morning to 9 every night, about seven days a week. . No, it hasn’t been easy, because Jose worked 50 to 54 hours a week. He wanted to work that many. He’d work more if we could afford to pay him.”
(Dillon) Jose and Rosa are back in their hometown near Acapulco, Mexico. Elaine says she wants to stay in touch with the family. She said that in her last conversation with Jose at the airport, he told her he didn’t know what he’d do for work when he got home.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Corinth.