Migrant workers say a new piece of legislation will make life on Vermont’s dairy farms easier. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Tuesday that allows undocumented workers to obtain drivers licenses in Vermont.
Vermont dairy farmers depend on about 1,500 migrant workers from Mexico and Central America to milk cows. Because the workers are unable to obtain visas to work in Vermont legally, they lead isolated lives, rarely leaving the farm for fear of deportation.
Shumlin said issuing licenses to migrant workers is a logical step for the state to take as Congress fumbles its way through fixing immigration policy at the federal level. “We know in Vermont that we can’t get milk to the market, that we can’t get our ag products to bigger markets without some foreign labor,” Shumlin said.
Addressing the crowd in Spanish, Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, who introduced the bill, thanked the migrant workers for persevering through a two-year legislative push. “Gracias por su paciencia,” he told them. The Senate passed the bill, 27-2, and the House passed it, 105-39. There are about 1,500 migrant workers in Vermont who stand to benefit.
Workers said they often switched shifts and sacrificed sleep to make it to the Statehouse to testify before lawmakers, and they credited their legislative victory to relentless storytelling.
Danilo Lopez came to Vermont five and a half years ago from Mexico. He works on a farm in Charlotte and came to the Statehouse frequently to advocate for S.38. Lopez, who is a spokesperson for the organization Migrant Justice, said the law is a matter of “human dignity” and gaining the ability to drive makes him feel like “an integral part of the state.”
Lopez has long awaited the chance to get his “operator’s privilege card” — in fact, he’s already purchased a 2001 Jetta in anticipation of the new law taking effect on the first of the year.
But it’s unlikely S.38 will help Lopez. That’s because he’s slated for deportation in July.
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In September 2011, Lopez was riding in a car that was pulled over for speeding in Middlesex. The officer asked Lopez, who is undocumented, for his immigration papers, and when he couldn’t produce them, the officer reported him to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Lopez appealed his deportation, but ICE hasn’t budged.
Natalia Fajardo, who works with Migrant Justice and helped spearhead the S.38 effort, said the organization is now pivoting its focus toward helping Lopez overturn his deportation order. They’ll plead his case to the local ICE office and contact all the lawmakers they can, Fajardo said. But with only several weeks remaining, Lopez’s chances of ever driving Vermont’s roads are dwindling.
Lopez was, in one sense, the victim of bad timing. Shortly after the incident, the Department of Public Safety, at the urging of the Vermont Human Rights commissioner and organizations like Migrant Justice, changed its policy. The new “bias-free policing policy” prohibits state troopers from asking individuals – including migrant dairy farm workers – about their immigration status unless the individuals are suspected of having been engaged in criminal activity.
Migrant Justice initially objected to a card that looks different than a regular Vermont operator’s license but their concerns diminished because any Vermonter, documented or not, can obtain the privilege cards. The cards do not serve as a federal identification.
Migrant workers and lawmakers alike characterized the new law as an important victory, but Lopez’s case is one of several undercurrents that S.38 only goes so far.
“This is a first step,” Lopez said. Fajardo said workers continue to encounter racial profiling when “police act as immigration officers” at the local law enforcement level. (The no-bias policy only applies to state police.)
Lopez spoke at the bill signing, saying, “We left the shadows to come out and organize for our rights,” but he made no mention of his story until the crowd had dispersed. “Whatever ends up happening with the immigration case, I’m really proud of the good work we’ve been able to do. Many of us thought this wouldn’t be possible,” he said.