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Southern Vermonter Lends A Hand To Migrant Workers

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Doug Avery, right, helps Miguel Moreno Gomez fill out a form in English at a farmhouse in southern Vermont.

Over the past 10 years, Doug Avery has been volunteering to drive migrant farmworkers around. The passengers are mostly Mexican and Guatemalan men who are here illegally, helping milk the cows on Vermont dairies.

Avery, who lives in southern Vermont, has been helping steer them clear of immigration authorities while taking them to banking and medical appointments, and other day-to-day needs.

There are 1,500 migrant workers on Vermont's dairy farms, and many of them are isolated by language, distance and the fear of being deported. 

Avery sits in a large farmhouse, in southern Vermont. He was planning on driving a Mexican dairy worker to the bank, but a confusing state form showed up in the mail and now Avery is on the phone trying to sort things out.

About 10 years ago, Avery introduced himself to some of the workers who were living on farms in southern Vermont and New Hampshire.

A few days later, a friend asked him if he knew anyone who could help clean out a barn, and Avery connected the barn owner with one of the migrant workers.

"So I took his number and gave it to Imelda," he says. "And my phone started ringing, and it's been ringing ever since."

His phone's been ringing with calls from migrant workers across New England and New York who are looking for a little help.

They call for a drive to the doctor, or to move from a farm in New York to one in northern Vermont.

Avery has gotten calls from dairy workers who feared a visit from immigration authorities, and one time an immigration official even took a young man from his car. He's still haunted by that experience.

Avery's not really sure how word spread about the service he provides. But somehow, through cell phones and Facebook, and through the tight connections that extend through families and communities back home in Latin America, Avery's cell phone number got passed around.

"I love it 'cause I answer my phone, 'Hello?' And if it's silent, I know," Avery says. "So then I say, 'Bueno.' And then they say, 'Don Douglas.' They say, 'Mr. Douglas.' And then it goes from there. They say, I heard of you from so-and-so. It's the coolest thing. It's like, I'm a very fortunate part of a wonderful web of humanity."

Avery has the names and phone numbers of dozens of immigrant workers on his cell phone, and he says he's still getting calls from people he's never met.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Doug Avery and Miguel Moreno Gomez talk in the car as they drive away from the farm where Gomez works.

Avery never set out to start a transportation, counseling and translation service.

He began by offering a few rides, or helping connect a farmer with a worker.

And always, while driving along in his beat-up Subaru, he listens to their stories.

"I get text messages from Chiapas, from Guatemala, from people who just want me to know that they're back and they're safe. I've had some amazing, amazing, amazing friends come out of this." — Doug Avery

"Little by little, I've gotten to know all the migrants around," Avery says. "And when they go to a different place, they stay in touch. And that's the beautiful thing. I get text messages from Chiapas, from Guatemala, from people who just want me to know that they're back and they're safe. I've had some amazing, amazing, amazing friends come out of this."

Today, Avery is helping Miguel Moreno Gomez, who's lived on this southern Vermont dairy farm for almost three years.

They drive over to a bank where Gomez takes out his cash. Then they go to a supermarket where he wires the money back home to Mexico.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Miguel Moreno Gomez wires his money back home to Mexico at a supermarket. Gomez says he's been more aware of his surroundings since Donald Trump was elected president.

There's no sense of dread hanging over the activity. Federal agents aren't standing outside the market waiting to arrest Gomez, but when he gets back to the farm Gomez says something has changed with the election of President Donald Trump.

"Before Trump came we were illegals," Gomez says through an interpreter. "Immigration could grab us at any moment. But we went out shopping without fear. But now you go to the store and you don't know. They may stop you or take you. You go to shop and you get out right away. "

Last month, three migrant activistswere arrested in Vermont, suggesting that the changes in federal policy are indeed at play way up here in New England.

"Now you go to the store and you don't know. They may stop you or take you. You go to shop and you get out right away." — Miguel Moreno Gomez

The crackdown in Vermont, and across the country, has the potential to isolate the migrant workers even more as they spend less time away from the farm.

And for people like Avery who are trying to make life a little better for them, the stakes are also higher.

"Douglas isn't just good because he helps us, but he is a good person," Gomez says. "He is a person who is conscious of the lives of others, and not just their own. Because when you live always above, you don't see below. Those who are above think they'll stay there. They don't know the needs of the people. They only know the power of their money and that closes their heart. They don't see the poor and the humble. People like Douglas are good people. It's good to be this kind of person. Not to be rich and important, but to have a good heart."

At the end of his visit, Avery helped Gomez make a doctor's appointment for an injury he received in the barn.

Avery told Gomez he'd be back next week to drive him in to town.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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