MONTPELIER — Lawmakers on Wednesday seemed poised to move the discussion of rights for migrant workers in Vermont one step forward.
The bill under scrutiny in the Vermont House was Senate Bill 238, which examines the possibility of allowing undocumented workers to obtain driver’s licenses and non-driver identification. If passed, a study committee would examine the ways that a program could work over the summer and report back to the Legislature when it reconvenes in January 2013.
The bill has already passed the Senate, though significantly changed from its original form. The bill originally proposed to establish a state-administered guest worker program that would allow migrant workers to establish residency in the state. That bill contained a clause prohibiting discrimination against guest workers and established access to state and local government benefits and services.
The edited bill examines a narrower range of options.
“The general assembly finds that migrant workers in Vermont face significant challenges based on their current inability to apply for Vermont driver’s licenses and non-driver identification cards, including the inabilities to travel and access services, medical care and basic necessities, to officially identify themselves or be identified, and to fulfill typical responsibilities of their employment that require them to legally drive,” reads the bill in the form passed by the Senate.
If Vermont did establish expanded access to driver’s licenses, the state would join New Mexico and Washington (state) in extending that privilege to migrant, primarily undocumented, workers. A number of other states have repealed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in the face of heightened federal driver’s license standards.
The federal REAL ID Act of 2005 establishes strict security standards on driver’s licenses, including required proof of citizenship to obtain a driver’s license. A number of states — including Vermont — have passed anti-REAL ID resolutions, claiming that the law violates privacy and civil liberty rights.
On Wednesday, S.238 had passed out of the House Transportation Committee and was scheduled for its third reading on the House floor. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, who examined the bill in committee, said the testimony she heard was eye-opening, with stories of workers who could not access basic needs or medical help after being injured. She said it’s surprising to her that while there are established guest worker programs for many seasonal industries, and even for shepherding, there is no federal program for workers on dairy farms.
“Dairy would collapse in this state if it wasn’t for migrant workers,” said Lanpher. “It’s time we take a look at who’s actually doing the work in our communities.”
Phyllis Bowdish, a Weybridge dairy farmer, has testified a number of times before House and Senate committees this year on the need to guarantee some security and peace of mind to migrant workers on farms across the state.
“To me it’s a human rights issue,” she said. “I can’t do anything about the federal policies, but as an individual I can do something in Vermont.”
Bowdish said she is optimistic about the narrowed scope of the bill, since a path to identification and driver’s licenses has a better chance of gaining broad support than a bill guaranteeing a broader range of rights.
And she said she was especially impressed by the speeches of migrant workers themselves, many of whom made the trip to the Statehouse to speak about their struggles in the state.
“They’ve been very visible. They’ve really helped to put a face to the issue, and a voice.”
The committee examining the issue would include one representative each from the House and Senate and representatives from a number of state agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
The committee would also enlist one representative from Migrant Justice (formerly the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project) and a representative from the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
Lanpher said the House Transportation Committee added one member from the Addison County Economic Development Corp., to represent the business community, and a representative from the Vermont Farm Bureau.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said the bill did not come through the House Agriculture Committee, but that he will be paying close attention to the findings of the study committee.
And, he said, while the issue most directly addresses the undocumented workers in the state, the issue of driver’s licenses also applies to those here under the federal guest worker program, who cannot use licenses from their home country and sometimes have trouble attaining driver’s licenses during their short tenures in the country.
“I’m definitely interested in the issue,” said Stevens, “And at the end of the day, I want to make sure that truly legal guest workers aren’t being treated any differently than Vermonters.”
To Lanpher, the issue transcends the discussion of driver’s licenses in Vermont: It’s also a way to demonstrate the need for immigration reform to the federal government. She added that whatever happens, migrant labor needs to be at the forefront of discussion in the state.
“If we’re going to have a renaissance in agriculture, we need to get it right from the very ground up, with who’s doing the work,” she said. “I am not comfortable with just turning a blind eye to this work force.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.