Migrant Farmworkers Make Pitch For Drivers' Licenses

10/03/12 5:50PM By John Dillon
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A special committee appointed by the Legislature has begun meeting about whether migrant farmworkers should be allowed to obtain drivers' licenses.

Advocates told the committee at a meeting Wednesday that there are no state or federal laws that would bar undocumented workers from being licensed to drive.

But the state's bankers worry that such a policy could cheapen the state's primary form of identification.

The dairy farm workers are mainly from Mexico. They seek the privilege to drive because they're often stuck in remote locations and must rely on their employers for rides.

Brendan O'Neill of the group Migrant Justice says a team of volunteer lawyers examined the issue.

"And what they found is there is actually no law, federal law, including the Real ID Act.... that prohibit the state of Vermont from creating a license that's accessible to undocumented residents," he said. "It's being done already in a couple states, particularly New Mexico and Washington state."

But the president of the Vermont Bankers Association says if undocumented workers have drivers' licenses, then banks may have to request other forms of identification from their customers.

 "If you compromise or water down, if you will, the system for awarding a driver's license in Vermont, then we can really no longer rely on it as a valid form of identification," said Chris D'Elia, the association's president. "So you would have to bring in maybe a birth certificate, a Social Security card or passport, or other form of documentation."

O'Neill, the farmworker advocate, says the bankers' concerns may be based more on opinion than fact.

"Everybody's actually on board in making sure that this license framework has good integrity," he said. "So long as it has good integrity in terms of proof of identity, proof of residency, it's not going to pose any risk to anyone."

Rutland Senator Peg Flory chairs the summer study committee. She wants to know if there are any long term impacts of making the licenses available to the farmworkers.

"The license says you are a legal Vermont resident," Flory said. "That's what the requirements on our license are. So if we're issuing them to undocumented workers that are not legal, Vermont residents, does that weaken what our Vermont license means?"

Flory says the committee is in the fact-finding stage now, and that she hasn't made up her mind on whether the workers should be allowed licenses.

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