Business & Economy

Few obstacles seen to allowing migrant workers to have driver’s licenses

Danilo Lopez, a migrant worker, comments as a member of the public through translator and Vermont Migrant Justice organizer Natalia Fajardo at the Statehouse on Wedneday. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

Can the state issue driver’s licenses to undocumented migrant workers without running afoul of state and federal laws? That was the question lawmakers, state officials and advocates wrestled with in a daylong session at the Statehouse.

Experts who testified on Wednesday said there are no legal obstacles to the proposal.

“The single message I have for you is that there is no impediment in federal law to getting this done,” said Dan Barrett, an ACLU-VT attorney. “The only question is whether or not we can fashion something within the parameters” required by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State’s office, he said.

A special legislative committee took testimony from a banking industry representative, national human rights groups and research nonprofits, a Secretary of State official, and Vermont farmers, the chief employers of the state’s more than 1,000 migrant workers.

In impassioned testimony, migrant worker Danilo Lopez said through a translator that without licenses, migrant workers were subjected to “modern slavery,” unable to travel for health care, groceries, or other errands in rural Vermont.

Five Vermont farmers also testified in favor of the licenses, saying that their hard-working employees deserved the dignity of easy mobility.

Members of Vermont Migrant Justice gather between testimony before a Statehouse study committee on Wednesday. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

Representatives from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, a New York human rights group, presented legal research that underscored precedents in New Mexico and Washington in which neither federal law, nor issues over residency and identity, made for insurmountable challenges.

Elections chief Kathy Scheele, also saw no problem in principle with issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, even amid concerns they could misuse the license to vote. So long as licenses clearly indicated that a driver isn’t a U.S. citizen and therefore couldn’t vote, she said, “I think we don’t have any problem.”

Vermont’s estimated 1,200 to 1,500 undocumented workers mostly work on dairy farms and have been lobbying for licenses for about 18 months now, according to Brendan O’Neill, a migrant rights advocate with Migrant Justice and committee member. Now they are trying to muster the political will to pass legislation, he said.

Vermont’s undocumented farm workers and their advocates won a legislative victory last spring with the passage of a bill to study the issue.

The Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Group also succeeded in pressuring state law enforcement to adopt bias-free policing protocols a year ago after members of the group made formal complaints about racial profiling incidents.

Though there appear to be no regulatory and legal barriers, questions remain about how licenses for undocumented workers could increase identification fraud.

Chris D’Elia, the president of the Vermont Bankers Association, said Vermont banks prefer an alternative driver’s permit instead of official identification.

“The banking industry understands the need for migrant workers to have mobility … the question is: How do we get there without creating unintended consequences?” asked D’Elia.

Rob Ide, commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, said the chief obstacle is preserving the integrity of Vermont’s license as a form of ID. He is concerned about migrant workers’ use of the Vermont ID in other states and for federal identification.

“We want to be absolutely sure that we do nothing to impact the integrity of the Vermont driver’s license as an identification instrument,” said Ide.

Andrew Meehan, a policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, warned of rising fraud in states where undocumented workers could easily apply for licenses.

“You’re going to essentially create a magnet for folks trying to obtain a license under a lesser [legal] standard,” said Meehan. “You have a large number of out-of-state applications, where people are presenting a minimum amount of documents to obtain a driver’s license.” Meehan cited New Mexico as a state with massive levels of driver’s license fraud.

He said Tennessee and Maryland stopped issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants after thousands of license applications based on false identities were linked to criminal activity.

The committee also heard testimony about what kind of ID migrant workers should present to Vermont law enforcement, and potential Canadian border control issues. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said he wants to clarify people’s identities through the best means possible, but the Vermont State Police are focused on safety and crime, not immigration status.

State Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who chairs the committee, couldn’t say whether draft legislation might see the light of the day in the next session. “All of us recognize the service that these workers provide for us: I don’t think that’s in question,” Flory said.

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  • Craig Powers

    How will the VT DMV keep the motoring public safe from these newly issued driver’s licenses if there is no background check to verify past driving record history? I cannot imagine the VT DMV calling out of country to verify that information. Maybe there is a procedure?

    What if an applicant has had a DUI, or other major issue, in their native country and has a suspended license there?

    I am curious.

  • Phyllis North

    Vermont recognizes international driver’s licenses. Why can’t these workers just use Mexican licenses?

  • david Black

    Why do they have to drive? Let the ACLU drive them around to and from anywhere they want to go. This way it will be easy to keep an eye on both of them. Them: meaning the illegals and the ACLU people.

    • Paula Schramm

      David Black – ask the farmers who employ these farm workers how they feel about your suggestion.
      Or maybe you would like to work long hours 6 days a week and never leave the farm for months ?

      • Arthur Hamlin

        Ask the farmers and ACLU why they don’t help these workers get the necessary documents to be here legally. That is the real problem. I understand there are problems with the current work visas that don’t work well for a lot of farmers, but the fact is the farmers are still employing illegals, which is a crime. If they were here legally they could get driver’s licenses. Do you want the same massive fraud linked to criminal activity that they had in Tennesse and Maryland to happen here?

    • joe smith

      same reason some people drive to cash out their walfare check…

  • walter carpenter

    Plus work for the wages that these migrant workers get paid. While this is what usually cash-strapped farmers can afford, few can afford to live on these salaries, so, Dave, if you want to try it, get a job on a farm and do what these folks do for what they do it for and see how long you last. For the record, I have worked on farms before.

  • Barbara Griffith

    I have an idea that might work. Ask the farmers to chip in and buy a small bus and hire a part time driver to drive to all of the farms in a close in areas on certain days of the month and pick up whoever needs to go to town. That way the drivers license wouldn’t be needed.

  • Darin Gillies

    Maybe they should return to their country of legal residence? These people are not migrant workers, they are illegal aliens. They should be arrested and returned to their home country and the farmers should be fined or arrested for employing them. If I were to employ these people in my business I would be subject to fines and arrest why shouldn’t the farmers?
    We have over 25 million unemployed people in this country looking for work. Allowing these illegals to remain here and work for low wages has artificially reduced the wages paid to farm workers by allowing essentially slave labor to exist.

    Now if we are talking about workers with a visa or other legal status I am all for recognizing international drivers licences or creating a path to a VT licence.

    • David Dempsey

      Right on the money Darin.

      • joe smith

        what world do u live in? you wouldn’t enjoy your ben & jerrys if it wasn’t for them….anyway…let’s deport them…see who takes those crapy jobs…..I’d love to see that….visa for farm workers?….wow…you need to get out of rural vt….get informed

    • Paula Schramm

      Darin Gillies – In theory I agree with you. But we don’t seem to be that interested as a country in arresting or seriously fining American employers of undocumented workers. Hmmm…So much of our economy seems to depend on the labor of immigrants, ( as ever it has been ). Maybe that’s why so many brave immigrants face all the dangers to come to the U.S. (often after their local economies have been wrecked by NAFTA or subsidized GMO corn imports ) – here they can hope to make enough money by hard work to help support their families back home. Apparently legal means don’t supply our American employers with enough labor ??

      Here in Vermont, it really is a different, much smaller scene. Our farms are important to our economy in a number of ways, but they are under big stress, and dwindling pretty rapidly. Wages have not been lowered as a result of undocumented farm workers, they were low before these workers came. ( I know, I was a farm worker ). The numbers of people involved are not millions…it’s between 1,000 and 2,000 workers total. These workers are providing dairy farmers with dependable, hard-working people that do a good job. Some of them ARE documented. The state would like to work with this situation and make it better. Vermont has had a successful situation with migrant seasonal workers who come for the apple harvest, etc. for years. It’s a matter of figuring out something comparable with dairy workers and that is being looked into. Meanwhile , how best to make it possible for a little more dignity in the lives of these workers ?

  • Eric Jacobsen

    This is a very complex problem. It’s the result of years of social engineering and making it easy and more profitable to stay on welfare and get free EBT cards then work on a farm. Ever hear of the term: Poor Farm? A place were able bodied men and women could start a new life for their family. Well give them EBT Cards and who needs to work on a farm any more? The answer: foriegn national workers illegally in the country willing to accept the wage. By giving them drivers licenses we are encourging more illegals to come to Vermont. What’s next after that, free in-state tuition at UVM for illegals? It’s already happening elsewhere in this country. How about anchor babies and all those social problems? Bi-lingual schoolrooms, who pays for that? Free markets determine wage and people flow to jobs when they don’t have economic opportunity elsewhere or don’t have an EBT card. I am a second-generation immigrant. My grand-fathers came here sponsored by US Citizens and worked here for many months before bringing their families over legally. I am in favor of legal immigration for many resasons. But please consider all those recent US Citizens sworn in last month, this is a slap in their faces for doing it legally. And how about the thousands in line already???
    No easy answers but legalizing illegals this way is wrong. Thanks for your time, Eric

  • Lester French

    Reference made to undocumented workers appalls me. THERE SHOULD BE NO UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS! Changes should be made to bring in these workers legally and give them the same rights and protections afforded to other visitors from out of country. If DMV issues a license I would like to think they would have to pass the written and driving test, so highway safety would be no more compromised than it is now.

  • George Plumb

    If what Phyllis stated is true then why is this an issue?

    That said Vermonters for Sustainable Population also supports drivers licenses for illegal immigrant dairy farm workers, albeit with strict conditions. Our statementfollows:

    Testimony to Legislature on proposed IDs for undocumented dairy workers

    Vermonters for Sustainable Population works to raise awareness about global and domestic population growth. We believe that U.S. population size is already unsustainable due to peak oil and resource extraction. Adding to the growth will only make this imbalance worse and will also significantly exacerbate the many other dilemmas we face as a nation. Among these challenges are high levels of unemployment, a decline in the quality of our public education, and health care costs increasing at a rate significantly in excess of overall inflation.
    Having said that, the Board of Directors of Vermonters for Sustainable Population supports the proposed legislation allowing a state-level exemption that would give workers in our dairy industry the ability to work and live without fear of persecution and deportation. We do not consider this a contradiction because of the extremely small number of undocumented workers, a number I have heard is approximately 2,000, to which these provisions would apply. Furthermore, we appreciate the prominent role that dairy farming plays in Vermont’s economy, its rural character and its quality of life. And we are not blind to the changing economics of this industry, wherein bulk processors have been able to pay very low prices to farmers while still asking a high price when they distribute to the retail outlets. We hasten to emphasize, however, that such legislation must be carefully crafted and implemented to avoid the possibility that this exemption could be expanded to workers in fields other than the dairy industry, and any documents provided to these workers must not be allowed to retain their validity beyond a given worker’s conclusion of employment within the dairy industry.
    I am proud to point out that the proposed legislation offers a far more reasoned and compassionate response to the problem of illegal immigration than those offered by a handful of other states, most notably Arizona and Alabama. While I can’t speak to the challenges faced by Arizona, in particular, given that state’s proximity to our porous southern border and the various additional burdens due to the much higher numbers of undocumented persons, I do believe that this proposed legislation offers another example of how Vermont has led the way in developing fair-minded and progressive solutions to problems which persistently elude effective resolution at the federal level. I am proud that our state was the first to offer a form of legalized unions between same-sex partners, and I see today’s debate as another groundbreaking movement wherein Vermont can lead the nation in addressing problems in ways that set aside the acrimony and intolerance evidenced in other states lacking Vermont’s common-sense, civility and capacity for neighborly deliberations.
    I have prepared and distributed a written statement that more fully outlines our concerns about U.S. population growth and the way that immigration pushes this growth beyond sustainable limits. I would encourage all of the legislators present to read and consider that statement carefully whenever their work touches on the issues of population growth and its effects on our environment, our quality of life, and the future quality of life for Vermont’s children. Additional information can be found at our website,, and please feel free to contact us at any time if you require more information about this issue.
    I thank you for your time.
    Mark Powell

  • Luci Stephens

    Most of the workers in question are employed on dairy farms; dairy farming is rapidly diminishing in Vermont, and there are no policy/ economic shifts on the horizon likely to bend this sad curve. The numbers of such workers (most of whom do not run afoul of law enforcement except in situations where the latter questions their immigration status – the workers are too busy, at jobs no one else wants or can do, trying to support their families and enable themselves to return home eventually) are already small and will continue to diminish at the rate their employers are diminishing. Individuals exercised by the notion of undocumented workers in our midst will, in the not-so-distant future, be able to exercise themselves over other groups of persons.

    My tongue is planted firmly in my cheek as I remind myself that many of us are the descendants of immigrants who were able to enter the United States only because they were not prohibited by immigration barriers (constructs not envisioned in our federal or state constitutions or Bill of Rights) Many of our forefathers were not welcomed (anyone recall the oft- posted signs saying ‘No Irish Need Apply’?) and would not have been able immigrate had persons already here been able to stop them. I disagree with the previous comment that immigration pushes the US population growth beyond sustainable limits. The dynamic of unsustainable population growth is the result of social, political, religious, economic, etc. forces and factors far beyond the relatively narrow scope of immigration policies.