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Reflections on 10 Years of Organizing for Migrant Justice

By Sylvia Knight | Jubilee Justice, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington

On a dark December night—December 22, 2009—a young Mexican man, José Obeth Santiz Cruz (pictured below) was working alone in a dairy barn in Franklin County, Vermont. He was working there to send money home to his family in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico. Since the 1990s international trade policies have undermined the peoples’ ability to make a living on the land, and young men and women have undertaken dangerous journeys north to find work to support their families. As he worked alone, he was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper by his clothing and his young life of 19 years was snuffed out. He was strangled to death. There was no one else in the barn to hear his cries for help.

In grief, Brendan O’Neill and several friends took José’s body back to his family in the southern-most Mexican state of Chiapas and spent time talking with the people there. Returning to Vermont, they began planning a workers’ collective, the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, a movement of, by and for farmworkers to work for their protection, improved working conditions and human rights, to assure that José did not die in vain. (See video, Silenced Voices.) In 2011 this organization became Migrant Justice.

For ten years, farmworkers have been organizing in Franklin, Addison and northeastern counties, giving up precious rest time between long working hours to meet together to share food and experiences, to learn that they are not alone, to discuss problems they share and what they can do to create change. Allies help with transportation so that farmworkers can attend regional assemblies and during farmworker events allies meet with each other to further discuss support, and learn the importance of solidarity, the challenges farmworkers’ face, and find ways to stand with them as they develop solutions.

Indeed, the farmworkers of Migrant Justice and allies have worked for justice and change in paradigm-shifting ways:

  • They have done research on the problems they face and collected data on the injustices in the Vermont dairy industry.
  • They have moved the legislature to pass a law granting the right to obtain drivers privilege cards regardless of documentation status.
  • They developed the Milk with Dignity program and convinced Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream CEO to sign the contract with them in October 2017 (https://migrantjustice.net/milk-with-dignity-campaign).
  • As they experienced arrests by police who turned them over to immigration authorities, they worked with allies to pass laws creating the Fair and Impartial Policing Policy to separate VT law enforcement from immigration enforcement and stop the criminalization of being brown and undocumented.
  • They have networked across the country with other food justice movements.
  • They have mobilized national support for several farmworkers, including their own staff members, imprisoned by ICE, and freed them.
  • They have invited Hannaford Brothers Company to join the Milk with Dignity program so that many more farmworkers can experience its benefits, but have received no response.

In these dark times, let us give thanks for the life of José Obeth and for the liberating work of Migrant Justice. May we honor those who labor to put food on our tables, who live in fear of separation from their families, yet who continue to make history, raising up prophets in our time, creating justice in food networks, and inviting us into solidarity with them. Please take time to learn more at migrantjustice.net and ciw-online.org.

The season of Advent invites us to be alert to the voices of God’s justice: out of darkness and pain, they bring life and hope for the most vulnerable and for us.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz

In the featured image: May1, 2017 (photo, S.Knight)

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