MONTPELIER -- A legislative panel on Thursday put off issuing its final recommendation on allowing immigrant farmworkers in the country illegally to get Vermont driver’s licenses, but an unofficial straw vote showed committee members favoring it.
The panel of nine, including lawmakers and representatives of farm, immigrant and human rights groups, put the finishing touches to a report that’s to be given to lawmakers as they convene next month. It voted 8-1 to ask staff to produce a final report recommending that the farmworkers be allowed to get licenses.
With Gov. Peter Shumlin in support, and Shumlin’s fellow Democrats in firm control of both legislative chambers, it appeared Vermont was on track to become the fourth state to grant driving privileges to people who have entered the United States illegally. The others are New Mexico, Utah and Washington, said representatives of the group Migrant Justice, which has been leading the effort to get the farmworkers licensed to drive.
Vermont has an estimated 1,500 Spanish-speaking farmworkers, mainly on dairy farms and mainly from Mexico, who say they are isolated along Vermont’s rural dirt roads because they can’t drive.
"Recently my brother had an accident at a nearby farm, and I couldn’t visit him, because I don’t have a driver’s license," farmworker David Sandiago told the committee through an interpreter.
Farmworkers complained that they have to ask the farmers they work for or others for rides for everyday chores such as going to the grocery store or to a medical appointment.
The campaign for the immigrants to have licenses also drew support Thursday from interfaith clergy and student groups whose leaders spoke in favor of the measure at a news conference.
The committee drafting the report was convened under legislation passed in the last session calling for a study of the issue. The panel was made up of lawmakers, the commissioners of motor vehicles and public safety, the head of the state Human Rights Commission and representatives of farm and immigrant groups.
Committee members said the farmworkers should be allowed to get standard state driver’s licenses, but not the enhanced licenses available under a post-Sept. 11 federal law that allow people to use them instead of a passport when going to or returning from Canada.
The one committee member who expressed misgivings was its chairwoman. Republican Sen. Pet Flory of Rutland County said she feared that the Vermont driver’s license could lose the "validity and value," it now has in designating someone as a resident of the state in good legal standing.
Flory also objected to statements by some of those testifying that having a driver’s license is a matter of human rights. "It’s a privilege; it isn’t a right," she said.
Flory’s suggestion that the workers be given licenses specially marked to indicate their lack of legal immigration status was rejected by other committee members. Brendan O’Neill, a committee member and leader of the Migrant Justice group, said that would create a "scarlet letter effect."