Senate Committee Advances Drivers’ IDs for Migrants

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Brendan O’Neill, an advocate with the group Migrant Justice, says its work has paid off for the nearly 2,000 migrant workers on Vermont farms who’ve come to rely on their employers to get around the state.

By Kirk Carapezza

The Senate Transportation Committee on Friday advanced a bill that would grant driver identification cards to Vermont residents who are in this country illegally. The bill would allow people who can prove identity and residency in Vermont to get a “driving privilege card.”

Under the bill, the state would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue ID cards that would look different from a regular state license.

For migrant workers and their advocates, Friday’s vote comes after more than two years of lobbying in Montpelier.

“This is really a bill about fundamental human needs and rights as we see it,” said Brendan O’Neill, an advocate with the group Migrant Justice. O’Neill said the group’s work has paid off for the nearly 2,000 migrant workers on Vermont farms who’ve come to rely on their employers to get around the state. “Access to food, access to health care, access to Vermont life – without a license living and working in a rural state is very difficult and now this is going to really improve life for, particularly our immigrant community, but really all immigrant communities.”

Senate President John Campbell said one provision held up the committee’s decision on the bill. The proposed policy would have required migrant workers who want the privilege to drive to sign up for a costly, high-risk insurance. Opponents wanted to include that provision to protect against identification fraud, but Campbell said it was eliminated on a 4-to-1 vote.

“We dealt with that in the development of the card itself,” Campbell said, pointing out that the high-risk insurance is often given to those who have driven under the influence of alcohol.

Campbell said four out of the five senators on the committee considered that insurance to be discriminatory in this case. The bill now goes to the Senate floor. And if it reaches the governor’s desk for his signature this legislative session, Vermont would become the third state – after Washington State and New Mexico – that issues driver privilege cards to undocumented immigrants.

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The Senate also advanced on Friday a bill that would put regulations on the use of license plate readers.

In Vermont, law enforcement can hold information gathered by the automated devices attached to police cruisers and posted on the side of the road for criminal investigations indefinitely. This bill would set an 18-month limit, with the right to seek an extension.

Sen. Tim Ashe, P/D-Burlington, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously, is a starting point. “There’s nothing magical about 18 months except that it was a comfort level for the Legislature,” Ashe explained on Friday. “As we learn more, we may come back and say it’s too long.” The Vermont Chapter of the ACLU had originally hoped to restrict data retention to 30 days.