Shumlin Supports Driver’s License Program For Farm Workers

03/15/12 7:34AM By John Dillon
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VPR/ John Dillon
Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee join migrant farmworkers in support of a bill that would allow undocumented workers to get a state driver's license.

(Host) Governor Peter Shumlin supports a Senate bill that would allow undocumented migrant farmworkers to get a Vermont driver's license.

The governor says the workers are essential for the state's dairy industry and that they should be free to move around the community.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The license bill wasn't so ambitious when it began. The Senate Agriculture Committee started out discussing a form of state ID for the undocumented, mainly Mexican, workers employed on the state's dairy farms.

But Committee Chairwoman Sarah Kittell, a Franklin Democrat, says the panel heard compelling testimony about workers being isolated on the farm.

(Kittell) "And for these folks not to be able to move around, not have access to driver's license, not to feel secure, to have some feelings of fear in our Vermont communities - that wasn't acceptable to me."

(Dillon) Governor Peter Shumlin agrees. And he's not worried that a Vermont license for undocumented workers might create a conflict with federal immigration law.

(Shumlin) "I have to do what I think is right for Vermonters. The fact of the matter is we can't get milk to market without guest workers. And it's not fair to ask them to be isolated, living in fear on the farms, when we would like to have them as part of our communities. So I think a basic right should be that they can get to the store, get to the doctor and get around while they're here."

(Dillon) The legislation is in the Senate Transportation Committee. And under the legislative schedule, bills are supposed to move out of committee by the end of the week. Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza says the committee may opt to study the issue over the summer.

(Mazza) "I will do the best I can this week. But if there's remaining questions, we will certainly look at possibly going with a study. I don't want to drop the issue; I think it's a very important issue. But on the other hand we want to make sure that we check everything out before we push a bill out on the floor with no time."

(Dillon) Advocates and farmworkers hope there's no delay. They jammed a Statehouse hearing room as worker Danilo Lopez gave an impromptu pep talk, translated by a volunteer.

(Lopez) "We're not only here to support 238, we're here because we believe in human rights for everyone."

(Dillon) But senators had many concerns, including whether the state risks losing federal highway funds if it allows the licenses.

Natalia Fajardo is coordinator of the group Migrant Justice, which organized a day of lobbying on the license bill.

(Fajardo) "We are working with the DMV and working with Governor Shumlin this week to answer some of those questions. And we believe that there is time in the rest of the legislative session to answer those questions. But we have the momentum now and a great opportunity for Vermont to start moving in the right direction on this."

(Dillon) If Vermont passes the bill, it would join New Mexico and Washington State in allowing undocumented workers to obtain drivers' licenses.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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