6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent
MONTPELIER, Vt. — About two years ago, Vermont Sen. Norm McAllister, a former dairy farmer that had switched to milking goats, hired two separate sets of migrant workers from Mexico.
“The first set showed me papers and I thought they were valid,” said McAllister, a Republican from farm-heavy Highgate in Franklin County. “But then I learned that they weren’t, when they got deported.”
The second pair, McAllister recalled, also claimed to have legal documentation that showed they could work in the U.S., but after McAllister saw too many red flags, he severed his ties with them.
McAllister has since sold his goats and opened a produce operation and he will not use migrant workers again.
His experiences are what led him to vote against a recently passed Vermont law that grants driving rights to undocumented residents, many of whom staff the state’s dairy farms.
“It’s nothing against the people themselves,” said McAllister, a member of the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee. “I understand why farmers use them; they can’t keep good help. But we’re actually giving a privilege to someone that has broken the law. I don’t agree with that. I think we’ve opened up a can of worms, and I think there are lines we should not cross.”
The law grants a “privilege card” to a farmworker that can pass Vermont’s written and road tests, provide some documentation (such as a passport or consular card) and show proof of Vermont residency (with two pieces of mail).
Vermont senators first heard testimony on S.38 in April. Originally, the bill offered an opportunity for Vermonters without legal status to get a driver’s license. When the term “license” was changed to “privilege card” in an amendment, the banking and insurance industries dropped their resistance and S.38 passed 27-2 in the senate. McAllister was one of two dissenters.
In the House Transportation Committee, testimony revolved around human rights, “and the dignity of farmworkers in Vermont who have been denied full access to mobility,” said Vermont Rep. Mike McCarthy, a Democratic member of the House Transportation Committee from St. Albans City, also in Franklin County.
Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Vermont State Police Col. Tom L’Esperance also testified to McCarthy’s committee. L’Esperance was especially concerned that an undocumented resident might use a state-issued ID to facilitate criminal behavior, but he and Flynn told lawmakers that having some sort of state ID for the undocumented migrant population was better than none at all.
“There were some very reasonable security and practical concerns noted by opponents of the bill, but testimony from a few farmers who opposed the bill was characterized by patronizing comments about migrant workers, and stereotyping that was uncomfortable to hear, and that may have pushed some committee members to vote in favor of the bill,” McCarthy said.
It eventually passed out of the House and Senate and got to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk in May.
“They will be able to drive themselves to work if they live offsite, drive to town to do their own shopping, without asking the farmer for a ride and be able to drive the farmer’s cars and trucks on the road legally and under the farmer’s insurance, if the farmer permits,” McCarthy explained.
The back of the card says, “not valid for federal identification purposes.” Privilege card fees — the same as a Vermont driver’s license — will generate $10,000 to $40,000 in extra annual revenue, according to estimates.
McCarthy might not have voted alongside McAllister on the privilege card, but he understands the latter’s position.
“I just don’t think it’s prudent for us to wait for the federal government to fix this particular issue,” McCarthy said. “While many of the people using this privilege card may not be in the U.S. legally, the issuance of a privilege card doesn’t endorse their presence. It allows anyone who can’t prove their residence, like a Vermonter who had their birth certificate destroyed, or an asylum-seeker, to go through the process of getting the ability to legally drive.
“The privilege card simply ignores the question of legal residence. It doesn’t grant any additional rights or benefits to the bearer beyond the privilege to legally drive an automobile,” he added.
In recent years, many of Vermont’s dairy farmers have turned to Latin American migrant workers, mostly undocumented, after a one-two punch of unreliable local help and tough economic times.
The situation is highlighted in “Hide,” a 30-minute documentary by Middlebury College students Elori Kramer and Peter Coccoma that takes audiences inside the lives of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers. The film estimates around 1,500 migrant workers live in Vermont.
The inability for workers to drive — for groceries, supplies and medical attention, to start — was one concern mentioned in the film, which also focused on positive farmer-immigrant relationships.
Coccoma and Kramer made the film with involvement from Migrant Justice, an advocacy group for Vermont’s migrant workers that formed after the December 2009 death of a migrant farm employee.
“There were so many factors in getting the bill passed, and we definitely can’t claim to be solely responsible,” Kramer said last week, “but I’m sure the film had some effect.
“Many people knew about the issue already, but the film gave the issue emotional weight. It made it an issue that people needed to take a stand on. We are fortunate they sided the way they did,” he added.