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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Vermont Efforts to Keep Cheap Illegal Farm Labor

ICE Checking Migrant Worker
Erin Hale, Vermont: Addison County dairy farmers and migrant labor activists are pushing for Vermont to adopt an identification system for its undocumented agricultural workers under bill S.238 in the Senate Agricultural Committee.

Though the bill makes provisions for residency registration, work authorization and the right to state services for undocumented farm workers, discussion has focused on how to provide workers with state identification cards. Vermont does not require a driver’s license to operate farm equipment, but lack of identification severely restricts the quality of life of many of Vermont’s undocumented dairy workers.

Natalia Fajardo of Migrant Justice, a Vermont migrant worker advocacy group, framed the issue as a human rights question, in her testimony to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, because lack of identification restricts the freedom of movement for many undocumented workers. “We have the ability to allow farm works to move around freely, and that’s what’s at stake here.”

There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 undocumented dairy workers in Vermont, 90 percent of whom come from Mexico. The workforce is almost entirely male, and 68 percent stay less than 12 months, according to the Vermont Migrant Education Program.

Access to state identification or recognition of residency could allow workers to obtain a driver’s license and interact with police officers without reference to their immigration status. The Mexican consulate issues consular ID cards to its nationals in the United States, but only the Middlebury and state police accept it.

. . . While the nuts and bolts of an ID program are undecided, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was the elephant in the room throughout the hearing.

Issuing identification would still not protect dairy workers if apprehended by ICE. If the IDs were issued through the Department of Motor Vehicles, it could also compromise the state’s eligibility for federal highway funds.

Sen. Sara Kittell, D-Franklin, chair of Senate Agriculture, said the purpose of the bill was not to create a shadow immigration program but to improve the quality of life for dairy workers. Both Kittell and Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, compared the bill to Vermont’s medical marijuana legislation, where the state does not enforce federal laws because of the perceived public good.

. . . Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, gave testimony in support of the bill, saying that his department was also less concerned with enforcing immigration laws than being able to identify individuals.

“Regardless of someone’s legal status in Vermont, law enforcement has a real interest in having a meaningful way of identifying who it is we’re interacting with – whether a suspect of a criminal charge, witness of a criminal charge, or witness to a criminal charge. Even when making motor vehicle stop, we need to know who’s operating it,” Flynn said.

Linking immigration status to driver’s licenses and IDs is a relatively new trend in Vermont, said Dan Barrett, a staff attorney at the Vermont ACLU.

“Vermont doesn’t have a long tradition of grafting immigration concerns into who can drive a car. It seems the state functioned perfectly well before then,” said Barrett. “Public safety concerns underlie the need of driver’s license: can you see well enough, take the written test. I’m sure driving in Mexico or Honduras is not any different than driving here.” . . . [Read Full Story]

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