A special legislative panel supports granting Vermont drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrant farmworkers.
The committee stopped short of issuing its final recommendation Thursday, but it took a straw vote indicating it will urge the 2013 Legislature to make the licenses a reality for those working on the state’s dairy farms.
As the committee was meeting, dozens of migrant workers and their supporters rallied at the Statehouse.
Erica Baron is a minister at Unitarian Universalist churches in Rutland and Bennington. She said immigrant workers sometimes feel like prisoners because they don’t have the freedom to drive to see friends, family or even go to the grocery store.
"It was horrifying to me that people – residents of Vermont, Vermonters – are telling us: ‘I feel like a prisoner,’" she said. "This isn’t the Vermont that I want to live in. This isn’t a Vermont that my congregations want to exist. This isn’t the kind of Vermont that I think any of us want to live in."
The committee agreed that the federal immigrant system is flawed because it grants seasonal visas for some farmworkers but not others.
And the panel threw its support behind the idea of making all residents eligible for licenses, including undocumented workers. Motor Vehicles Commissioner Robert Ide is a member of the nine-person panel.
"We’re prepared to make a recommendation back to the Legislature that the conversation should continue with the ultimate goal of finding a way to get driving privileges extended to the migrant workers who are here working in our dairy industry," Ide said.
But the panel did not reach unanimous agreement on whether the licenses should indicate that the worker is not a U.S. citizen.
Rutland Senator Peg Flory chairs the panel. She doesn’t think the immigrant licenses should look exactly the same as those granted to legal residents.
"So what we’re trying to do is point out to the Legislature – depending on which action they take – some of the things that they ought to be careful of, that if they’re going to do this they ought to be constructed in such a way that they don’t come into the fraud problems that other states have had," she said.
Flory was the sole vote against the licenses being identical. She says that the ones issued to undocumented workers could be marked "NC" – for non-citizen.
Brendan O’Neill of the group Migrant Justice disagrees. He says the drivers’ licenses should be the same for legal and undocumented Vermont residents.
"We call it the scarlet letter effect," O’Neill said. "It isolates, alienates workers. Anyone who sees that card, whether it’s law enforcement, whether it’s someone at a store who has some other agenda can know – or an employer – would know that this person lacks lawful status and they could take action that would have unintended consequences."
Governor Peter Shumlin also supports the concept of extending driving privileges to undocumented workers. But the governor has said he’s not sure the licenses should look exactly the same as regular Vermont drivers’ licenses.