MONTPELIER, Vt. – The state Senate has advanced legislation to allow immigrant workers on Vermont farms to become legal drivers, even though they may be in the country illegally.
The 27-2 vote came nearly 19 months after Vermont State Police stopped a car containing two passengers who were Mexican immigrant farmworkers in the country illegally and turned them over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
One of those farmworkers, Danilo Lopez, said Friday he was gratified at the progress made since his release by the Border Patrol for the estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people like him, immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala who entered the U.S. illegally and who now provide much-needed labor on Vermont’s dairy farms.
“We are really proud,” Lopez said through an interpreter. “The vote today is due to the testimony and organizing and strong efforts of our community.”
Lopez and senators supporting the measure said it would address the isolation many of the farmworkers feel on dairy farms along Vermont’s rural dirt roads and allow them better access to services like medical care.
Lopez said he was injured on the job, but was unable to seek care for several hours due to a lack of transportation.
“The license itself is much more than a piece of plastic,” he said. “What it really means is the opportunity and ability to move around, to meet our fundamental needs independently.”
Natalia Fajardo, an organizer with the group Migrant Justice, which lobbied for the legislation, said Vermont would join Washington state, Utah, Arizona and Illinois in having some form of driver’s license for people who are in the country in violation of immigration laws. She said about 14 other states are considering such measures.
Backers in the Senate said the immigrant workers provide crucial labor to Vermont’s iconic dairy farms, as well as in the hospitality industry, doing work that farmers and resort owners are hard-pressed to find enough Americans willing to do. Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who described the bill to her Senate colleagues, called those workers “critical to our economy.”
Backers also said better mobility would leave the workers less vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Lopez said most Vermont farmers treat their immigrant workers well, though there are some who do not.
The September 2011 police stop of a Vermont driver for speeding when he had two Mexican passengers in the backseat gave impetus to the effort to get the immigrant workers the right to drive, Fajardo said.