hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Panel backs licenses for undocumented workers

Vermont may allow driving privilege regardless of legal status



Contributing writer

Vermont’s debate over providing driver’s licenses to undocumented foreign workers appears to be shifting from the question of whether to issue licenses to the question of what kind to provide.

In January, a nine-member study committee appointed last year by the Legislature issued a long-awaited report on the issue. The panel voted 8-1 to recommend changing Vermont’s motor vehicle law so that anyone living in the state could obtain a driver’s license or a non-driver identification card – regardless of their immigration status.

The committee’s report, “Migrant Worker Access to Driver’s Licenses,” acknowledged that an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 migrant farm workers live in the state, almost all on Vermont’s dairy farms.

“Farmers said the dairy industry would fall apart without them,” said Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, a member of the committee. “They’re already here. How can we make their lives a little easier?”

Vermont’s migrant workers are mostly young single men from Mexico and Guatemala, said Brendan O’Neill, staff organizer at Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante in Burlington and another member of the study committee.

These workers stay in Vermont for an average of one to three years, O’Neill said. The estimate that there are 1,200 to 1,500 of them comes from the federally funded Migrant Education Program, which provides educational services to farm workers.

“It may very well be an undercount,” O’Neill said.

One challenge faced by dairy farmers is that the federal government doesn’t provide a mechanism for their foreign workers to enter the country legally. The government offers a visa program for seasonal agricultural workers, such as apple pickers, but there’s no similar program for dairy farms, which operate year-round.

Migrant dairy workers are eager to come to Vermont, and farmers are just as happy to have them, said Tim Buskey, an administrator at Vermont Farm Bureau and another member of the study committee.

“The Mexicans like it because they can work as many hours as they want, earn $10 an hour, send money home, and come and go,” he said. “They’re hard workers. The farmers like them.”

Farmers have reported that it’s nearly impossible to recruit and retain American employees willing to take on the hard labor, long hours and relatively low pay required by dairy farming. So they’ve turned to foreign workers.

“They work 80 hours a week,” Burke said of the migrant workers. “They’re taking jobs no one else wants.”

But life in rural Vermont without a driver’s license is difficult. At the study committee’s hearings, farm workers described the hardship of being unable to buy groceries, go to a clinic or doctor’s office, attend community events, or visit friends and relatives on other farms without asking their employer for a ride, waiting for a volunteer with a car, or paying a driver.

Farm owners may be willing to ferry them but are stretched for time themselves. In rare cases, workers without transportation are at the mercy of employers who abuse or exploit them.

“The main thing is a little bit of dignity and independence for my compañeros,” said Danilo Lopez, a volunteer with Migrant Justice. Access to driver’s licenses, he said, “would show respect from the community we’re part of.”

Vermont already issues driver’s licenses to foreign nationals, such as visiting students, who hold valid licenses from their home countries. The short-term licenses usually expire on the same date as the holder’s visa.

Hardly any migrant workers, however, have driver’s licenses from their home countries, Lopez said. In the poor communities they come from, few people own cars.

Natalia Fajardo, another Migrant Justice organizer, said most third-world countries have reasonably good public transportation, so the poor don’t need cars and licenses. But that situation is reversed in the United States.

Some see fraud risk

The study committee met four times between August and December. Other members included the executive director of the state Human Rights Commission, the state’s public safety and motor vehicles commissioners, the executive director of Addison County’s economic development corporation, and a representative of the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

The committee identified several obstacles to granting licenses to undocumented workers. Since 2004, Vermont has required driver’s license applicants to supply a Social Security number -- or documentation that the applicant is ineligible to have one. But that state law could be changed. No federal law requires states issuing driver’s licenses to demand proof of legal residence in the United States.

The committee heard testimony from officials in Washington state and New Mexico, both of which issue driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, and Utah, which grants driving privilege cards to people who can’t prove they’re in the U.S. legally. Tennessee and Oregon used to offer such licenses but stopped because of concerns about fraud. Illinois’ governor signed legislation Jan. 28 that will grant licenses to undocumented residents of that state.

State Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland County, echoed the concerns that stopped Tennessee and Oregon from issuing licenses to migrant workers. Flory served as the study committee’s chairwoman and cast the lone vote against its recommendations.

“Some states had people moving in and applying for licenses, then using the license to get a driver’s license in another state,” she said. “They have a large amount of fraud.”

Other states have refused to recognize the licenses issued by states that provide them to undocumented residents, Flory said. She added that she’s worried that lowering the requirements for a Vermont driver’s license would reduce its “validity and value” in showing that someone is a Vermont resident in good standing.

“If we grant this, it’s not just to migrant farm workers,” Flory said. “It would be open to anyone. It’s not as easy an issue as it would seem on the surface.”

Separate or the same?

Flory said she would prefer to offer undocumented people a driving privilege card that clearly states it isn’t valid for identification purposes. The rest of the committee wanted all driver’s licenses to be the same -- to avoid singling out drivers who couldn’t prove their immigration status.

The committee discussed what sorts of identification would acceptable from people without U.S. documents. A valid passport from the applicant’s home country or a consular identification card, also called a matricular consular card, issued by the home country’s consulate, could prove the person’s identity and county of origin. Other documents could show Vermont residence.

Applicants would have to learn Vermont’s rules of the road and pass written and driving tests. The state already offers its written test in Spanish and other languages, O’Neill said. There’s no Spanish-language manual, but the Spanish-speaking community could make its own translation, as Burlington’s Vietnamese community did, he said.

The committee concluded that offering driver’s licenses to migrant workers would have many advantages. Workers would have easier access to life’s necessities, and they could participate more in their communities. The result would be more diversity and a boost to local economies, the panel found.

O’Neill and Lopez both said some workers would probably buy vehicles and insurance to go with them. O’Neill said he’s heard of workers proudly driving their American cars and trucks home to Mexico.

Buskey, of the Farm Bureau, said licenses for migrant workers would help farmers as well.

“The major benefit to farmers is that workers would be happier,” Buskey said. “If farmers are providing transportation, that would relieve some of the pressure on them.”

And if workers who are stopped by police have an acceptable form of identification with a Vermont address, he said, they’re less likely to be detained, thereby removing another headache for employers.

Burke pointed out that Keith Flynn, the state’s public safety commissioner, was part of the eight-member majority recommending licenses for undocumented workers. He concluded it would benefit public safety to have trained, insured drivers with good ID on the roads.

Support from governor

State Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden County, introduced the legislation that created the study panel last year. This year, he already has introduced a Senate bill, S. 38, that would act on the committee’s recommendations. It has nine co-sponsors.

Burke, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said she plans to introduce an identical bill in her chamber.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has already said he’d support a bill providing driver’s licenses for migrant workers.

As for the debate over whether those licenses should be in the form of a driver privilege card or be the same as everyone else’s, the question may soon be moot. The state Department of Motor Vehicles announced in mid-January that Vermont is only months away from complying with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005. That law requires states to offer drivers a choice of a regular license; an enhanced license, which can be used in lieu of a passport for some international travel; or a noncompliant license that cannot be used as ID for federal purposes, such as entering a federal building or boarding a commercial flight.

Burke said some people who could get a regular or enhanced driver’s license under the REAL ID law might chose not to. For example, they might have a passport and prefer to show that as their ID, or they might object to what they consider overly intrusive technology used by the enhanced license. If anyone can get a noncompliant license, Burke said, then the immigrant community wouldn’t be singled out.

In addition, President Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators are pushing for an overhaul of the federal immigration system, including the creation of a legal path to citizenship for people already in the country illegally.

Buskey said he has been told by aides to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that the senator decided in December to remain as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rather than take what was considered a more plum assignment as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, in part so that he could advocate for Vermont’s migrant workers as immigration reform legislation is drafted.

So no matter how the debate in Montpelier goes, “I’m confident something will happen,” Buskey said.





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