Driver’s license debate still packs last-minute controversies

Driver’s license debate still packs last-minute controversies

Undocumented dairy farm workers and advocates look on as the Vermont House debates extending driving rights to their community, on May 6, 2013. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Undocumented dairy farm workers and advocates look on Monday as the Vermont House debates extending driving rights to their community. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Republican opposition to driver’s licenses for undocumented workers is mounting, ahead of a final House vote expected tomorrow.

A third and final vote to allow so-called “driving privilege” cards for about 1,500 undocumented dairy workers, here on Vermont’s farms illegally, is set for tomorrow, after a voice vote cleared the legislation for the time being on Monday.

But at a Republican caucus earlier that day, GOP lawmakers from the divided House Transportation Committee, which shepherded the bill, said the legislation has damaging unintended consequences, and grants licenses to all undocumented workers, not just dairy workers.

Reps. Duncan Kilmartin, R/D-Newport, and Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said identity fraud and national security concerns prompted their opposition.

Kilmartin argued that by not requiring undocumented workers to submit Social Security numbers to the DMV, lawmakers backed a double standard between typical driver’s licenses and these special new privilege cards.

Kilmartin also said that this emotional debate has now reached a significant level of “deceit and disingenuousness,” after hearing another House member, Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, discuss the bill’s minor financial consequences.

“The bill, to be acceptable, should at a minimum require the Social Security number … to be given to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said to the caucus. Under the current legislation, applicants may submit two forms of identification, which include an ID card issued by the Mexican or Guatemalan consulate.

“They (those consulates) were unwilling to come up and testify, as to the reliability of their documents,” said Kilmartin, criticizing the vetting process for foreign ID cards. “That’s what they want to replace the Social Security number with.”

Wright said law enforcement officials privately communicated concerns that criminals could obtain the card, and use it as a false ID to facilitate fraud. Others at the caucus, like Jane Clifford, who leads the Green Mountain Dairy Farmers Co-operative Federation, noted that many of her farm members oppose the legislation.

But Democratic support remains robust. Gov. Peter Shumlin wants to give undocumented workers driving rights, and Democrats on the House Transportation Committee all voted to that effect, too. The Senate approved the measure 27-2 last month.

Rep. Molly Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, a bill sponsor, said it would be unreasonable to require Social Security numbers, because many undocumented people lack them.

Still, “we can verify their identity, and their residency,” said Burke, who added that promising 100 percent security against fraud is impossible in this case, as in many others.

Requiring Social Security numbers defeats the purpose of the bill, she said. She said questions about the integrity of foreign ID cards drew “conflicting opinions,” but added that a top DMV official is now in communication with the Mexican consulate in Boston, seeking information on how the consulate verifies identities.

Two other contentious topics, which are likely amendments for tomorrow, include limiting the new cards to agricultural workers only, rather than extending them to all undocumented workers, as well as fingerprinting applicants.

The House Transportation Committee, which has considered these topics already, defeated three amendments late last week, in votes divided largely on party lines.

The committee voted to prevent language that limited the licenses to agricultural workers, required documentation identical to what typical Vermonters now provide, and banned holders using the ID card as official state identification.

In an FAQ sheet produced by Transportation Committee member Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, it’s emphasized that these driving privileges will not bestow voting rights or access to state benefits, or conflict with federal regulation.

The FAQ sheet adds that Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn supports the bill because it partly enhances public safety, by allowing police to identify people more reliably, and by encouraging victims and witnesses of crime to come forward.

House Transportation Chair Pat Brennan, R-Colchester, said his fellow Republicans may have overemphasized the card’s value, reiterating that it simply bestows the right to drive, and requires vetting processes similar to those which typical Vermonters undergo.

Former dairy worker Danilo Lopez, who worked on a Charlotte dairy farm for a year, told reporters that this recent resistance has only made him more determined, and doesn’t shake his confidence that his community will score a victory tomorrow.

“What concerns me is the people themselves, who unfortunately want for our community to continue to be oppressed,” said Lopez through a translator. “The people who are against this have given strength to my community to continue fighting for our rights.”

Lopez is now fighting a federal deportation order, with the help of some lawyers, which makes his future status in Vermont uncertain. One Republican lawmaker at the caucus on Monday expressed surprise that federal agents and the state police hadn’t visited the Statehouse to arrest the undocumented workers, like Lopez, who have lobbied here in recent weeks and years.

Kilmartin said granting such licenses could even facilitate terrorism, arguing that these ID cards could fool people into accepting undocumented workers as legal residents of Vermont.

Republicans asked during the caucus why dairy workers couldn’t simply become legal workers, with Burke responding that Sen. Patrick Leahy had tried and failed for many years to do just that at the federal level.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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