There are between 1,000 and 2,000 migrant workers who stand to benefit from the legislation, most of them coming from Guatamala or Mexico to work on state’s dairy farms.
If the House passes S.38, Vermont would join Washington, Utah, and New Mexico, becoming the fourth state that allows its undocumented residents to drive.
Migrant farmworkers, who have been lobbying for this legislation for nearly two years, say not being able to drive legally prevents them from accessing healthcare and other basic services and leaves them basically stranded in the rural swaths of the state.
On the floor today, several senators voiced lingering concerns about the bill, but the body voted overwhelmingly in favor, 27-2.
The top state officials in the departments of agriculture, motor vehicles, and public safety have all signed off on S.38, and Gov. Peter Shumlin also supports it.
Under S.38, foreign citizens can obtain a “driver’s privilege card” regardless of their legal status. They would need to supply proof of their identity, show that they are Vermont residents, and pass the necessary driving tests.
To avoid encroachment upon the territory of federal law, the “privilege card” will be labeled as such and will contain language making clear that it cannot be used for federal identification.
Several senators said their initial reservations about the bill were put to rest after they saw how thoroughly the Transportation Committee had vetted the issues.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said, “A year ago I would have voted against this bill because I was afraid we were running afoul of federal jurisdiction., I’ve been impressed through the intervening several months that the committee has worked very hard to fashion a compromise to keep us as clear from the federal requirements as possible. ”
Other concerns were that it would foster fraud or create insurance problems.
The string of senators who stood up to support the bill extolled the part migrant workers play in buttressing the state’s dairy industry. Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, likened their isolation on farms to being “a prisoner in place.”
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, a lead sponsor of S.38, said, “There’s a long tradition in Vermont of the hired man… And a lot of times the hired man makes the difference between the make-or-break of the farm. I think it’s fair to say, in 21st century Vermont, this group of workers, migrant workers, are the new hired man.”
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, said S.38 shows that Vermonters respect “people from other lands.” .
“We as a body here have to send a message and that message is we understand the individual plights of people who come to this country, who are coming here because in their homeland they might not be able to make the same wages that they make here.”
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, sits on the Transportation Committee and chaired a committee that studied the issue over the summer. She cast the lone vote against the license proposal on the summer committee, citing concerns about fraud, and on Friday, she was one of two Senators to oppose the legislation.
Flory sought to turn the focus of the floor debate away from the migrant workers, whose service to the state she said she appreciates.
“This is not a bill for migrant farm workers. There is nothing in here about migrant farm workers. What this bill is about is a way for someone who currently cannot get a license to be able to qualify to get it, regardless of their legal presence.”
Licenses, Flory said, “are not for the convenience of the person seeking a license. They are for the protection of everyone else out on the street.”
The other dissenter, Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, said he was concerned the bill would jeopardize farmers.
“Living on the border, and also hearing from our farms and their nervousness as to what the liability situation would be, I can’t support the bill.”
Gilberto Lopez, who has been working on a dairy farm outside Montpelier for the last year and a half, said he won’t waste any time getting a privilege card if the bill passes in the House.
“It’s been difficult. There have been instances when I needed to go to the doctor but I haven’t been able to because I couldn’t find someone to give me a ride,” Lopez said.
Danilo Lopez, no relation to Gilberto, is a farm worker and spokesperson for the Vermont-based organization Migrant Justice. He said the vote was an exciting step forward in a drawn-out process.
“We have been working on this for almost two years and we are seeing the fruit of our labor show its product… It’s been an exciting and long path and we are hoping we are getting close to the goal line and we look forward to complete victory soon.”