Farmers seek driving rights for migrant workers
By David Taube
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | October 04,2012
Farmers from across the state testified Wednesday that they don’t mind driving migrant workers to grocery stores, church services and banks, but they think those employees deserve access to Vermont driver’s licenses.
“I’m just imagining putting myself in the shoes ... of a farm worker, though, who’s dependent on the employer,” said Migrant Justice organizer Brendan O’Neill, a member of a state committee charged with looking at identification and driving privileges for migrant workers. “And I’ve heard people express things like ... children needing to ask for a ride.”
Among those testifying Wednesday before the committee were farmers, legal proponents and a farmer’s association representative advocating driving privileges for migrant workers.
The issue is complicated by considerations ranging from potential banking problems to immigration issues.
The committee has looked at states that have modified their driving or identification policies, and heard legal testimony that there is no federal law that would prevent Vermont from allowing migrant workers to obtain driver’s licenses.
The committee must deliver a recommendation to the Legislature by mid-January.
On Wednesday, Christopher D’Elia, president of the Vermont Bankers Association, recommended a state policy like Utah’s which allows people to obtain a driving-privilege card without showing a person is legally in the United States.
Vermont requires driver’s-license applicants to provide a Social Security number or letter from the U.S. Social Security Administration explaining why they are ineligible for one. That requirement has left undocumented or illegal migrant workers unable to obtain a driver’s license, according to Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, a committee member.
D’Elia also said at a committee meeting that the USA Patriot Act requires banks to verify a person’s identity, covering both U.S. and non-U.S. customers.
He said modifying driver’s-license requirements could undermine the validity of identification for banks across the state that use a license for identification.
Committee member Robert Appel said he was confused by how the Department of Motor Vehicles could compromise a licenses’ validity as form of ID.
D’Elia said he couldn’t point out anything specific, noting that a bill or committee proposal has not yet been presented.
Phyllis Bowdish, a dairy farmer in the Middlebury area, also noted problems with banking.
She said even though she’s given checks to employees and driven them to the bank she’s used for some 20 years, she undergoes a litany of questions from the bank.
Because the process lasts 15 or 20 minutes, she contacted the manager of the bank, who told her she could provide a sheet with employees’ names and signatures to help speed up the process, she said Wednesday.
Ted Foster, also a Middlebury dairy farmer, said he wasn’t sure a migrant worker would be interested in opening up a checking account because when those employees on his farm cash their checks, 81 percent of the money is transferred back home through Western Union.
Another issue Foster raised was how farmers can be liable for immigration status. Foster said he’s worried about a “constructive knowledge” clause, which requires employers to take proactive steps if there’s indication that an employee might not have the necessary documents to be working in this country. Employers who fail to do so can face prosecution from the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
Foster said a Wisconsin employer faced enormous fines and was almost jailed recently because of the clause.
Dan Barrett, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said a state policy like Utah’s would create additional, undue scrutiny on migrant workers who have a alternative card “that basically says, ‘I can’t prove that I’m here legally.’”
Marshfield resident Joseph Gainza, who has ties to the Central Vermont Farm Worker Coalition, said the committee should think about how isolated small Vermont communities can be in the middle of winter, when some migrant workers can be thousands of miles from their families and friends.
“All they’re asking for is the ability to get off the farm every once in awhile, go into town, do some shopping, maybe go to church, see a friend maybe a cousin who lives 50 miles away on another farm,” Gainza said. “This can be done. ... It’s just a matter of us wanting to do it for these neighbors who are keeping our rural economy alive.”