Mission and Programs
“Migrant Justice has changed my life since I joined. I am proud of all our achievements and feel joy in being part of this struggle to change the world we live in.”-Over Lopez, Migrant Justice Coordinating Committee Member
There are approximately 1200-1500 migrant workers that sustain Vermont's iconic dairy farms and turn profits for Ben & Jerry's, Cabot Cheese and other famous Vermont brands. Unlike with seasonal labor, dairy migrant farmworkers have no access to work visas, therefore most are undocumented. Workers typically work 60-80 hours per week and endure extreme isolation, often without a clear sense of where they are. This situation leaves the migrant community in a vulnerable position in one of the whitest and most rural border states in the U.S. Thus, workers are subjected to racial profiling, highly restrictive living and labor environments, and are overly dependent on employers to meet their basic needs. The great majority of workers lack basic freedoms like the ability to gather as a community, go to the hospital, or go to the market. Due to this isolation and marginalization workers struggle to access essential resources and many experience human rights and workers' rights abuses. Additionally, many workers migrate here because their own agricultural communities have been decimated by corporate-driven agriculture, enabled by policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Ironically, upon arriving to Vermont, many migrant workers find themselves working side by side with dairy farmers who are on the verge of extinction and meanwhile corporate CEOS such as Greg Engels from the dairy monopoly Dean Foods earn record breaking salaries driving income inequality to unprecedented levels across the country.
Migrant Justice brings farm workers and community partners together to engage these problems for systemic change.
Our mission is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the migrant farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights. We gather the migrant farmworker community to discuss and analyze shared problems and envision collective solutions. Through this ongoing investment in leadership development, members deepen their skills in community education and organizing for long-term systemic change. From this basis our members set the agenda and evaluate progress and have prioritized building a movement to secure the fundamental human rights to: 1) Quality health care; 2) Dignified work and fair housing; 3) Freedom of movement and access to transportation; 4) Freedom from discrimination (Immigration Reform; No Police Profiling).
The seeds of Migrant Justice were planted in 2009 after the death of young worker José Obeth Santiz Cruz while working on a Vermont dairy farm. This tragedy inspired the formation of a multi-racial solidarity collective of allies working to support farmworkers in building an organization to secure the communities' rights and dignity. Migrant Justice has gained national attention for our cutting edge rural immigrant rights organizing and concrete victories including:
• Building a broad coalition to pass legislation in 2014 that explicitly prohibits all Vermont Police to use public resources for the purposes of immigration enforcement;
• Organizing a powerful grassroots network of farmworkers, farmers, and allies to win legislation in 2013 for all VT residents to access drivers licenses, regardless of immigration status;
• Stopping the deportation of Danilo Lopez in July 2013 by organizing widespread community and power-holders' support including public support from all 3 of Vermont's representatives;
• Partnering with Vermont Workers’ Center to include undocumented people in Vermont’s 2011 ground-breaking universal healthcare legislation;
• Winning over $15,000 in back wages through our Workers' Rights Hotline, Teleayuda, pushing the VTDOL to change labor law in 2013 to expand state powers to collect unpaid wages;
• Being recognized nationally as the example of Ben & Jerry's Foundation's effective funding for their 2014 NCRP award; receiving the 2013 VT ACLU "David Curtis Civil Liberties Award";
• Winning RESIST, Inc. organization of the year for 2013 and the UU Burlington's "Courageous Love" Award for 2013.
"We meet as migrant workers in Franklin to discuss issues affecting us and to seek solutions. Migrant Justice supports us asking nothing in return. Learn your rights and join our cause – we need your voice to build a better Vermont for all.” - Eliasar Martinez, Migrant Justice Coordinating Committee Member
Migrant Justice emerged in response to critical issues affecting migrant dairy farm workers. Interviews with workers during 2009 and 2010 led to a participatory education project in which teachers and students in 10 Vermont High School Spanish Classes heard personal stories of hardships and lack of freedom shared by their invisible neighbors. The interviews, translated by students, are now available on our website as part of a package of educational resources.
The actual catalyst for launching Migrant Justice came with the tragic death of a young dairy worker, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, on December 22, 2009. Migrant Justice organized the return of his body to his village in Chiapas, Mexico and documented the complex interdependencies between Vermont agriculture and this largely invisible community. This project ended with the production of the documentary film Silenced Voices and a state-wide tour drawing large audiences and widespread media coverage helping to raise awareness about the plight of farm workers and developing a solidarity network. Since then, we have transformed a project into an organization through monthly farm worker community assemblies to build a 10 person, all Spanish Speaking coordinating committee that includes 6 dedicated volunteer migrant farm worker leaders, 2 volunteer organizers, and 2 half-time organizers.
In Sept. 2011, Danilo Lopez, one of our emerging leaders, was asked for his papers by Vermont State Police in a routine traffic stop. We organized to turn this crisis into an opportunity by winning, just months later, a strengthened bias-free policing policy and drawing national recognition for our success. At a time when the federal government and states throughout the country are criminalizing and dehumanizing immigrant communities, Migrant Justice is leading Vermont to build communities that value the human rights and dignity of all our neighbors.
In 2011-2012, over 100 farmworkers participated in community assemblies (asambleas), surveys, or connected with us through other means and identified community priorities in a five-point pliego, or platform: 1) Bias-free policing; 2) Stop anti-immigrant policies such as Secure Communities and organize for comprehensive immigration reform; 3) Ensure inclusion of migrant farmworkers in Vermont’s Universal Healthcare system; 4) Improve Vermont’s farmworker labor and housing conditions; and 5) Overcome the barriers of transportation and free movement of migrant farmworkers, including access to driver’s licenses.
In 2012 Migrant Justice launched the Campaign for Human Rights and Food Justice, a multi-issue campaign to defend this community-defined agenda by building and unifying movements for immigrant rights and food justice. As part of this campaign, we prioritized our 'Driving Towards Human Rights' initiative and organized to win support in the State House to create a study committee in order to introduce legislation in 2013 for access to driver's licenses in VT, regardless of immigration status. More importantly, we are building farm worker voice, power and leadership and organizing alliances with farmers, human rights and food justice organizations in order to build communities that work together for social and economic justice for the long haul.
“My name is José Martin. A few months ago I was working in a farm in this state…I had to leave the farm because they weren’t paying me and they owed me $1,000.00, but thanks to Migrant Justice and the help of other people we were successful in getting my backwages. I’m thanking you with all my heart and I WANT TO SAY TO ALL THOSE WHO DON’T GET PAID OR ARE OWED BACKWAGES: look for support from this group. Call them at 802-658-6770 and they can support you so you will be respected…DON’T GIVE UP! TOGETHER WE’LL ACCOMPLISH IT!”
Migrant Justice began as solidarity collective comprised of allies but through popular education, farm worker outreach, and leadership development we are now led by a 10-12 person Farmworker Coordinating Committee. On January 1, 2012 we changed our name from the VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project (VTMFSP) to Migrant Justice to emphasize this shift in our organizational leadership.
Our Farmworker Coordinating Committee meets monthly in order to set and review goals and create work plans collectively. We base our priorities on the themes and issues that emerge at monthly farm worker community assemblies. As we identify the need for new information or additional resources, we partner with local allies and draw upon the experiences of successful farmworker led organizations, which has included the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, IDEPSCA, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, SomosUnPueblo, CATA/Agricultural Justice Project, and VozMob.
Migrant Justice is fiscally sponsored by and working in partnership with Wheelock Mountain Farm, which exists to create fundamental social change through education and non-violent action. The board of Wheelock Mountain Farm provides oversight to ensure proper use and administration of resources and overall organizational accountability.
Coordinating Commmittee Members
Paid Full-time Staff Organizers:
Brendan O’Neill is Development and Ally Coordinator with Migrant Justice. He is a long-time popular educator, community organizer, and Latin American solidarity movement organizer. He co-founded VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project which was transformed into Migrant Justice. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abel Luna, Campaign Coordinator is full-time staff with Migrant Justice. Abel grew up working as a migrant farmworker in New York State and worked as an educator and organizer with the Rural Migrant Ministry of NY. He worked on their successful campaign to strengthen agricultural labor laws in New York State. Contact: email@example.com
Danilo, from Chiapas Mexico, has been on the CC since its formation in May 2011. He is a core leader and spokesperson of Migrant Justice ever since he was profiled by State Police sparking a huge successful community organizing campaign. Danilo steers up farmworker outreach efforts, organizes community assemblies, and is a leader of our driver's license campaign and all media work. Danilo is a founding member of Migrant Justice.
Ober, from Chiapas Mexico, has been on the CC since its formation in May 2011. He represented the Migrant Justice at the 2011 Jobs with Justice Conference. Ober participated in the original Silenced Voices film tour in 2010 and has been a leader in our driver's license organizing and is a spokesperson for Migrant Justice. Over is a founding member of Migrant Justice.
José, from Chiapas, Mexico, is our newest member joining the CC in November, 2011. He spoke at Vergennes High School during the Silenced Voices speaking tour, has helped produce our farm worker newsletter, and is a leader of the Addison County Farmworker Assembly.
Javier, from Mexico City, has been on the CC since its formation in May 2011. He spoke at the May 1st Health Care is A Human Right rally at the VT State House about life as an uninsured worker with 'farmers lung'. Javier has also written for our newsletter. Javier is a founding member of Migrant Justice.
Eliazar, from Chiapas, Mexico, joined the CC in August, 2011. He is the liason between the Franklin County Farmworker Assembly and the CC. He has contributed to the newsletter, participated in video projects, and was one of 5 farm worker leaders who met with the Governor in October, 2011.
Bernie, from Puebla, Mexico, has been on the CC since its formation in May 2011. He is a leader of the Addison County Farmworker Assembly and helped design and implement our 2011 farm worker survey. He was one of 3 farm worker leaders who met with Ben & Jerry's in November, 2011 to discuss our food justice campaign.
David, from Oaxaca, Mexico is the newest CC member. He has emerged as a leader in the Addison County Farmworker Assembly and a spokesperson in our driver's license organizing work.
Solidarity Ally members:
Monica Collins has worked on the U.S.-Mexico border with organizations including Borderlinks and Centro de Derechos Humanos. She is a founding member of Migrant Justice.
Martha Caswell, is a community organizer who has worked on community education and organizing initiatives in Latino and immigrant communities on both sides of the border. Martha is a founding member of Migrant Justice.
Aaron Lackowski, is a community organizer, labor organizer, and Latin American solidarity activist and near full-time volunteer organizer with Migrant Justice.
Towards Human Rights and Food Justice!
Many migrant workers here in VT, in particular those from indigenous communities in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca commonly speak of the hopelessness in maintaining their familial, communal and traditional agricultural communities in the face of plummeting corn prices, a lack of support programs for small farmers in Mexico, unequal competition with big agribusiness, and increased drought and flooding. Thus, many workers share that they are not here because they want to be rather they are here because they have to be.
Meanwhile, Vermont dairy farmers share that they can't stay afloat because their costs of production are often well above the price of milk. Many Vermont dairy farms struggle to pay livable wages to themselves never mind their employees. Recently, one Vermont dairy farmer filed a class action law suit against corporate giant Dean Foods for price fixing and monopolization of the Northeast Dairy market, which they argue is part of the reason for these low prices. There were 1075 dairy farms at the beginning of 2009. Now there are less than 1000!
On both sides of the border small farmers are struggling to hang on while corporate agribusiness post regard profits. Family farmer organizations all over the world are pushing for the creation of supply management systems, farmer support programs, guaranteed prices for small producers, and the end to policies that enable the corporate control of agriculture (1). But these measures they push for go against the dominant U.S. sponsored economic paradigms and policies of 'deregulation', 'free trade' and 'free markets'.
Now, in a bitter and twisted interdependent irony, displaced farmers from Mexico who are forced to migrate to maintain their families keep afloat many of Vermont’s rural farming communities that also teeter on the verge of extinction (Listen here).
In the 1980s and 1990s, promising the benefits of economic globalization, the US government, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forced Mexico to 'de-regulate' its agricultural economy by eliminating its farmer support programs, assistance and various protections (2). Approximately, 10 million Mexican farming jobs were lost during these massive economic reforms due to the unequal competition it created. The U.S. pours $20 billion of subsidies into agriculture annually while Mexico provides $3.5 billion, this allows U.S agribusiness to sell corn at prices 30 percent below Mexico’s cost of production. Furthermore, the average Mexican farmer spends 17.8 days of labor to produce one ton of corn, while the average U.S. grain company spends 1.2 hours (3). This process drives small farmers off the land and forces them to migrate. Since the 1994 passage of NAFTA the number of Mexicans migrating to the U.S. each year has more than doubled.
Meanwhile, beginning in the 1980s here in the US similar types of economic reforms and 'de-regulations' forced cuts in programs that support and protect small farmers. This enabled and favored corporations like Dean Foods and global corporate agribusiness like New Zealand's Fonterra to monopolize and dominate milk markets forcing down prices well below the costs of production for Vermont family farmers (4). Recently, the cases of both Dean Foods and Fonterra highlight the negative impacts of the implementation of 'deregulation', 'free trade' and 'free market' policies in the US, which have 'freed' corporate global capital to ensure their own profits while driving family farms out of business (5) (6).
Indeed, the current broader economic crisis is due in large part to the U.S. governments' religious like commitment to the 'deregulation', 'free trade', and 'free market' formula at any cost. In practice, these polices simply open the door for increased power and profits for a handful of corporations to assert increasing control over all sectors of the economy including agriculture.
Rather than address the root causes of migration that continuously generate desperate conditions and force family farmers to migrate the national immigration debate focuses on increasing "border security" and "enforcement", which criminalizes immigrants, channels resources towards building a militarized border, and increases racial profiling. For these reasons Migrant Justice works tobrings farm workers and allies together to engage the full range of these problems for meaningful systemic change at the same time that we organize for immediate and concrete improvements. .
Join the campaign for Immigrant Rights and Agricultural Justice now!
-Migrant Justice is fiscally sponsored by Wheelock Mountain Farm, Inc
-Thanks to Joe Golden from Triangulus and Chris Wohlers from the movement for all your help on website!
-Thanks to Kaleb Kenna and Chris Urban for sharing photos from the Golden Cage
-Thanks to countless other volunteers and members, too many to mention, that have made all our work possible!