Senate Panel Expected to Authorize Drivers’ Identification for Migrants

Immigrant Licenses

People hold signs during a committee hearing last year 2012 in Montpelier. A special Vermont legislative panel looked into whether immigrants working on Vermont dairy farms should be allowed to obtain drivers’ licenses or non-driver identification cards. (AP/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

The Senate Transportation Committee expects to recommend a bill as early as Wednesday that would grant driver identification cards to Vermont residents who are in the country illegally. And committee members say they’re preparing to take a lot of heat for the bill.

The measure would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue the ID cards, which would look different from a regular state license. The committee will take up the legislation again Wednesday morning, and could vote to send it to the full Senate.

As the country continues to debate broad issues surrounding undocumented immigrants, a lot of people and agencies in Vermont have come out in favor of the bill, including Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“I really want to see the bill for undocumented workers pass this session,” Shumlin told reporters last week. “It’s no secret that this nation has an immigration policy that leaves a lot to be desired. And it’s no secret that Vermont farmers can’t get their product to market without the help of guest laborers.”

“We’ve made it so that it wouldn’t ever be used as a federal ID,” Shumlin added. “It’s very clearly marked to be different from other drivers’ licenses that Vermont residents use.”

Migrant farm workers and their supporters have been lobbying for this bill for more than two years. “Life for us – for myself and all the farm worker communities living in a rural state without a driver’s license – is very difficult,” said Danilo Lopez, a spokesman for the group Migrant Justice. Lopez and other migrant advocates have been at the Statehouse for much of this legislative session to show their support.

“We always find ourselves depending on other people, whether that’s employers or even sometimes people who charge us really high prices so that we can get around and move around with basic freedom,” he said.

Lopez said the IDs would allow the migrant community the opportunity to live with more self-respect in Vermont. He sees the drivers’ identification card as much more than a piece of plastic. “For us it represents dignity and hard work that we’ve done here on this [legislation] and an improvement for the lives of our whole community.”

But some critics of the bill remain concerned about migrant workers’ use of the Vermont ID in other states and for federal identification.

“On any of these folks it’s not always easy to track them,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who has called for stringent rules designed to preserve the integrity of the Vermont license as a form of identification. “If I go with my Vermont license and I move to New York, I want to make sure the state of New York will honor my Vermont license.”

Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille, who supports the bill, said it’s a very contentious issue on both sides of the debate. “I have heard from a fair number of people in my area who say we shouldn’t be giving [migrant workers] preferential treatment,” Westman said in a phone interview. “We are going to take some heat.”

Members of the Senate Transportation Committee tell VPR it’s likely they will vote out the bill Wednesday.

Read the bill here.