Driving Towards Justice: Vermont Poised to Issue State ID and Driver’s Licenses to Migrant Farm Workers

“Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” – Thomas Jefferson, legal argument (1770)

The Vermont Senate voted today to establish a committee to introduce new legislation for Vermont residents to access state issued ID and Drivers’ Licenses regardless of immigration status. Here is the story of how Vermont’s migrant justice movement won this historic victory.

A bill churning through the Vermont Statehouse for the last few months seeks to reaffirm Vermont’s courageous commitment to civil rights, especially where the federal government has proven intransigent and ineffective. Originally conceived as a ‘Vermont Migrant Guest Worker Program,’ Senate bill S-238 is meant to begin addressing the ongoing plight faced by the estimated 1,500 migrant farm workers living and working throughout Vermont with limited protections or access to basic services. S-238 will confront these challenges by making state issued ID and drivers’ licenses available to everyone, regardless of immigration status.

Today, the Vermont Senate voted to establish a committee to introduce S-238. Next up for the law is a 3rd and final reading and vote in the Senate on Tuesday, which it is expected to pass easily after a unanimous vote today, and then its over to the House.

Migrant Justice, a grassroots organization working closely with Vermont’s migrant farm worker community to further issues of social and economic justice, immersed itself in the legislative process in late December seeing an opportunity to achieve a tangible and necessary benefit for migrant farm workers and the farm community.  Now, just two months later, Vermont is well positioned to join the states of New Mexico and Washington to affirm that all residents, regardless of immigration status, deserve the right to move freely and of their own volition.

On March 23rd, Senate bill S-238 cleared its final Senate hurdle before making its way to the Vermont House, passing out of the Senate Transportation Committee as a ‘Study Committee on Migrant Worker Access to Driver’s Licenses and Non-Driver Identification  Cards.’ The formation of a ‘study committee’ might reasonably signal a lack of broad support, but it’s important in the case of S-238 to appreciate the unique and extraordinary process that got the bill this far. Drawing upon a wide-ranging constituency, and non-traditional  alliances to address an issue of human rights injustice that has largely been ignored, Migrant Justice was able to challenge the status quo and change it through migrant led grassroots organizing and education.

Freedom of movement off the farm has long been a significant issue for the migrant farm worker community. Vermont’s rural landscape offers limited access to public transportation so access to basic necessities like food, clothing and medical attention becomes a function of the employer to provide access. Coupled with the stifling culture of fear undocumented migrant workers feel in a state struggling to enforce a universal bias-free police policy amidst recurring incidents of racial profiling and immigration operations, time constraints for migrants working 60-80 hours per week, and low wages, migrant workers have been made victims of geographic and political isolation.

On February 2nd, 2012, this was about to change as the first hearing for S-238 took place with the Senate Agriculture Committee. On that historic day, Migrant Justice made a formal request for time to present general education about the farm worker community’s needs and goals as they relate to S-238. That was the beginning of what would be a momentous transformation of the entire Senate Agriculture Committee and a coming out of the shadows for Vermont’s migrant farm worker community. Two weeks later, the committee was scrambling to find a bigger room to accommodate a packed house of farm workers, farmers and supporters, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder, eager to testify in favor of S-238 and access to drivers’ licenses for migrant workers.

As momentum and interest in S-238 built over the next two months, so did the alliance of supporters and advocates championing the bill and its underlying intent. Farm workers, farmers, the Vermont Farm Bureau, and the faith community aligned themselves with Migrant Justice in supporting the bill. The State Police spoke of the importance of Vermont community members having access to identification in order to identify themselves and be identified, if need be, regardless of immigration status; and Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles affirmed their own support for the measure.

After two months of tireless grassroots organizing, the entire Senate Agriculture Committee was not only on board the S-238 bus – they seemed to be driving it. With extensive support from Migrant Justice and their allies, the committee worked to transform the bill from a weak ‘guest worker’ proposal, into a concrete drivers’ license bill that would directly address acute mobility issues within the migrant farm worker community and further confirm Vermont’s commitment to equal, human rights.

As a driver-licensing bill, S-238 was conferred to the Senate Transportation Committee with significant pressure to move the bill forward quickly. The committee held special sessions with the Mexican and Guatemalan Consulates, invited colleagues and distinguished guests. On March 14th, Senators Kittell, Starr, and Baruth of the Senate Agriculture Committee, reaffirmed their support for the bill by attending an unprecedented Migrant Justice state house day of action, where farmers, legislators, migrant workers and supporters joined forces to rally for justice and equality. Senator Kittell, chair of the committee, expressed her reasons for supporting the bill to the crowded room, “For these folks not to be able to move around, not have access to driver’s licenses, not to feel secure, to have some feelings of fear in our Vermont communities – that was unacceptable to me.”

The following day, Vermont Public Radio carried this headline on their website, “Shumlin Supports Driver’s License Program for Farm Workers.” In barely over a month, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin went from supporting issuance of an identification card, but stopping short of a Vermont driver’s license, to endorsing the driver’s license legislation and upholding Vermont’s commitment to human rights and it’s abnegation of responsibility to enforce the federal government’s failed immigration policies.

The Governor’s support for the bill was timely and invaluable, bolstering S-238’s chances of success despite intransigent opposition from some powerful Senators. This victory was testimony to the power of grassroots organizing, and the moving testimonies of farm workers, farmers and supporters who have been speaking out against injustice and coming together to support equal, human rights for all.

Meetings, hearings, interviews, media attention and sustained public pressure has kept S-238 and the plight of migrant farm workers at the forefront of the legislative agenda. Speaking to an Executive Chamber meeting with representatives of the Governor’s Legal Counsel, Senate Committees on Transportation and Agriculture, Departments of Public Safety, Motor Vehicles and Agriculture among others, migrant farm worker and Migrant Justice organizer Danilo Lopez stated emphatically, “Right now the very people who sustain Vermont’s dairy farms are not free to move about in VT. You are all in a position to change this and I urge you to use your power to act now and push S-238 forward.”

Danilo’s sentiments carry special significance in Vermont. On September 13th, 2011, Danilo Lopez and fellow farm worker Antonio were involved in what should have been a routine traffic stop that inexplicably resulted in arrest and pending deportation proceedings in one of the states’ most notable cases of racial profiling by State Police. As passengers in the vehicle, Danilo and Antonio’s immigration status should never have been questioned. The arresting officers thought otherwise, and as Danilo and Antonio could not present proof of their immigration status, they were arrested, incarcerated and are facing deportation hearings.

Danilo’s leadership in the farm worker community is bolstered by his experience and his affable, unassuming charm. Agreement with his values and opinions has been palpably growing across the state and gaining traction in the legislature. There is broad consensus that Vermont’s migrant farm worker community deserves equal rights and access to basic services, and that access should not be at the discretion of their employer or contingent upon their immigration status.

As Governor Peter Shumlin said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio’s John Dillon, “It’s not fair to ask them to be isolated, living in fear on the farms, when we would like to have them as part of our communities. So I think a basic right should be that they can get to the store, get to the doctor and get around while they’re here.”

Establishment of a study committee to work out exactly how to implement a program that will make Vermont ID and drivers’ licenses available to migrant farm workers is not seen as setback to organizers with Migrant Justice, who stated: “This study is a call to action to create a solid piece of human rights legislation to introduce in January 2013 in order to create a path to drivers’ licenses and Non-driver ID cards for our migrant workers. This is not a loss; rather, this is a huge human rights victory that was unimaginable just two weeks ago. Vermont migrant workers WILL have access to ID and driver’s licenses, and perhaps more importantly, for the first time in Statehouse history, farm workers and farmers are getting organized to fight together for Immigrant Rights and Agricultural Justice!”

Michael Feiner writes and works in the hills of central Vermont. He is dedicated to ‘living change’, working to bring our global community into balance with a truly ecological and just future. He can be contacted atfeinervt@gmail.com.

Migrant Justice works to build the voice, capacity and power of the migrant farm worker community and engages allies to organize for social and economic justice. For more information, to get involved, or support their work go towww.migrantjustice.net or contact info@migrantjustice.net