MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — The general consul from Mexico pulled on his hat, gloves, and boots and tromped to a dairy farm this month in the 18-degree chill, stepping over cow dung and grain to reach his compatriots.
“It’s freezing,” the Boston consul, Emilio Rabasa said, surveying the barns and hay silos that increasingly rely on the labor of immigrants.
The consul makes the trek to Vermont annually, but this year it comes with added urgency: President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Mexican immigrants, has sent a bolt of fear through farm workers in the state.
Rabasa is part of a loose confederation of diplomats, church pastors, nonprofits, and city governments scrambling to reassure immigrants before Trump takes office next month. In Massachusetts, churches are offering immigrants refuge from deportation, lawyers are teaching immigrants their legal rights, and consulates from Mexico and other places in Latin America are pooling resources to aid all their citizens.
Nationwide, cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are vowing to help ensure that immigrants facing deportation have legal aid, while Mexico created a 24-hour hot line for immigrants in the United States who need help.
“We want to send them a very strong message that we are with them,” said Rabasa, whose territory covers five states in New England. “We want the community to feel that the consulates are very close.”
An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 Latino farm workers are scattered throughout Vermont, according to Migrant Justice, a farm-worker-led nonprofit. Most farm workers are from Mexico and most are undocumented, according to a recent article for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
“They’re vital to the economy,” Jessica Holmes, a Middlebury College economics professor who volunteers as an honorary consul for Mexico, said of immigrant farm workers. “It’s also what Vermont is known for: dairy cows. It’s who we are.”
On a Saturday this month, Rabasa took his message to the annual “mobile consulate” in Addison County, where red barns and Holsteins dot the farms some 2,000 miles from the US-Mexico border. Every year, the Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, a small college town, opens its light-filled nave to the consulate so farm workers can renew their passports or consular cards. Volunteers welcomed the immigrants with sandwiches, winter coats, and teddy bears for their children.
As dozens of immigrants waited for consular services, a battery of speakers tried to prepare them for Trump.
Standing next to a sparkling Christmas tree, Rabasa gripped a microphone and begged immigrants to register their children with the consulate; otherwise, he said, the children cannot go with them if they are deported.
On the other side of the church, health care workers, fearing they will lose federal grant funding for migrant workers, hurried to administer shots for tetanus and the flu.
And a lawyer warned immigrants not to let immigration officials into their homes without a warrant.
“Please, don’t open the door, for anything,” said immigration lawyer Enrique Mesa, who is based in New Hampshire.
Dairy is Vermont’s top agricultural industry, accounting for $2.2 billion a year in sales, wages, and tourism, but independent farmers say they are struggling. Dairy farms have dwindled from more than 6,000 farms in 1965 to 830 now, said a University of Vermont professor, Bob Parsons. He said some have closed, but most have been absorbed by larger farms.
Farmers attribute their losses to milk prices that do not cover their operating costs and a labor shortage, which immigrants have helped address. Over 60 percent of the milk produced in New England comes from Vermont, according to the state.
It is tough work, requiring workers to rise before dawn to milk cows, shovel grain, and clear out manure.
“The dairy farms in Vermont would end without these guys,” said one semi-retired farmer, who declined to give his name but drove two workers, a young married couple from Mexico, to the mobile consulate earlier this month. “I think the world of these guys.”
Farmers say immigrants are doing jobs Americans will not do, while immigrants say they and their families are mired in the Washington deadlock over the 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally.
“Mostly we’re the ones who work on the ranches,” said a 24-year-old man from the state of Chiapas in Mexico who works on the farms with his young wife. “If they had immigration raids, they’d be without people.”
The man declined to give his name because he returned illegally after being deported when he was 15.
If deported again, he said, he’d stay in Mexico with the couple’s 3-year-old, who lives with her grandparents. She was 10 months old when he left her to work in Vermont and send money home. When he returned to visit a couple of years later, she was already walking. She did not know who he was.
Others are fearful of deportation, saying they are painfully aware that it could mean long separations from their US-born children.
“As immigrants, we’re exposed to everything,” said Jose, a 51-year-old father of three from Veracruz who asked to use his middle name for fear of deportation. He sat with his wife, Maria, waiting to renew his consular card. “I know [the government] can tell us to go or kick us out.”
Jose and Maria dream of returning to Mexico, where their extended family lives. But their three children and new granddaughter are likely to spend the rest of their lives in the United States. The tight-knit family often spends weekends together, shopping at Costco and going to the mall for lunch at the Chinese food buffet.
“I’d like to go back and forth. It’s only the three of them, and we’d like to be together,” said Maria, 43.
But Maria has not been to Mexico in 13 years. She missed her father’s funeral in 2005.
“When you leave, you don’t think of what you’re leaving in Mexico. You don’t think, ‘I’m not going to see them,’ ” she said. “We leave thinking only of our children. In Mexico, we had nothing, no work. . . . We just wanted them to study.”