Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Danilo Lopez, center, celebrates following the Senate vote backing immigrant driver’s licenses Friday in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Friday to legislation allowing immigrant workers on Vermont farms to become legal drivers, even though they may be in the country illegally.
The plan will go to a final Senate vote Tuesday and then heads to the House.
The 27-2 preliminary vote in the Senate came nearly 19 months after Vermont State Police stopped a car containing two passengers who were Mexican immigrant farm workers in the country illegally and turned them over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
One of those farm workers, 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 farm workers 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 some do not.
The police stop of a Vermont driver for speeding when he had two Mexican passengers in the back seat in September 2011 gave impetus to the effort to get the immigrant workers the right to drive, Fajardo said.
The trooper’s focus on the passengers was charged by critics to be a case of racial profiling, and Gov. Peter Shumlin later endorsed a “bias-free policing policy” under which immigration status was not to be a priority law enforcement matter for the state police.
Under the bill, the immigrant workers will not be eligible for the driver’s license that was enhanced last year in keeping with the federal REAL ID Act. REAL ID-compliant licenses incorporate the driver’s Social Security number and other data that someone in the country illegally likely would not have.
Instead, the immigrant drivers would get an “operator’s privilege card,” providing they had passed the written and road tests required for any driver’s license.
Some worried about what Fajardo called the “scarlet-letter effect,” in which someone with the privilege card would be automatically assumed to be in the country illegally.
But she said that concern was mitigated by the fact that other Vermonters who don’t want to share the information required to get the REAL ID license might use the privilege card, as well.
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