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McKnight Farm, Montpelier, Vermont. Photo: Sarah Harris
McKnight Farm, Montpelier, Vermont. Photo: Sarah Harris

Vermont grants driver's licenses to migrant workers

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Dairy farms in Vermont and northern New York have faced a major labor shortage, which means that migrant laborers from Mexico and Guatemala are now milking many of the region's cows.

Farm country here is not an easy place to be a migrant worker: It's rural, hard to get around, and there's not a big Latino population. But a new law means that migrant workers in Vermont will soon be able to drive legally.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

On a bright spring day in East Montpelier, Luis, who asked that I not use his last name, shows me around McKnight Farm, the organic dairy where he works. There's a sprawling farmhouse on one side of the dirt road, a big barn on the other.

Inside the barn at McKnight Farm in Montpelier, VT. Photo: Sarah Harris
Inside the barn at McKnight Farm in Montpelier, VT. Photo: Sarah Harris
Luis takes me inside. "So here we have the barn and the cows," he says in Spanish. "We showing me where the feed goes and where they keep the pregnant cows. We clean and keep it fresh and from this side we feed and from over here we have pregnant cows."

Luis is a migrant worker from Mexico. He's 20 and has been in the U.S. for about a year. He's married, and sends money home to his wife and his parents.

Luis works with three other young guys, all from Mexico. They live together, in a trailer up the road. They milk cows together. And they go places together – but only when they can find a ride.

 "It's kind of tough, the transportation part of it," says Seth Gardner, owner of McKnight Farm and Luis' employer. Seth and his partner Kim Watson try and make sure they can give their workers a ride to the store or the dentist or when they need one – but it doesn't always work.

"When you make an appointment and all of a sudden you're like, oh no, Kim can't do it, I can't do it, the neighbors can't do it, we've had to cancel appointments."

Seth, Kim, Luis and Marcos are joined at the kitchen table by two other workers. It's familial, the way they joke and laugh.

But for Luis, the driver's license issue is not just about getting a ride. It's about having to ask his bosses every time he needs to go somewhere. It's about having the freedom to move around.

"Put yourself in our position," he says in Spanish. "We're working for them but we don't have any freedom. You just kind of feel closed in. You can't go out, you can't entertain yourself, you don't have family, and you feel alone."

But that may change. Vermont just became the sixth state to grant driver's licenses to migrant workers. The law would allow people to get driver's licenses and non-driver ID cards regardless of their legal status. They have to prove Vermont residency – and if it's a driver's license, take a road test. The license would look different than a regular license. It wouldn't comply with the Real ID act of 2005, which means you couldn't use it to board a plane, or to get into to a federal building. But you could use it to get off the farm.

Luis says that with a driver's license you could relax a little, go where you want, and come back to work.

For Seth Gardner, it's a moral issue.

From left: Ernesto, Marcos, Gilberto, and Luis, who all work on McKnight Farm. In this photo they're at the VT statehouse on May 1, protesting for drivers' licenses. Photo: Sarah Harris
From left: Ernesto, Marcos, Gilberto, and Luis, who all work on McKnight Farm. In this photo they're at the VT statehouse on May 1, protesting for drivers' licenses. Photo: Sarah Harris
"When you have workers show up on your doorstep, and all they have is a suitcase, and they don't speak English, they're at your mercy. And in some places, that's not a good thing and it lends itself to abuse. And I feel the driver's license is a way to empower those workers but it also sends a message, even though it's subtle, to the employer, that these people at least have that right. "

Some farmers testified at the statehouse last week that their Hispanic employees might not be responsible enough to drive.

But a dairy farmer in northwestern Vermont who wanted to remain anonymous says it's not that simple.

He sympathizes with migrant workers, he says – he employs two them. And his parents were immigrants. But he doesn't think a driver's license will make migrant workers' living and working situations much better.

"I believe it's very unfair to be leading the young immigrant labor force into believing that just that license is going to change their life that way," he said.

Migrant worker Alberto Madrigal at the VT statehouse protest. Photo: Sarah Harris
Migrant worker Alberto Madrigal at the VT statehouse protest. Photo: Sarah Harris
He's hoping for federal immigration reform.

"I'd really like to see what Washington comes up with first and then Vermont could move after that."

Some legislators worried, in the wake of the Boston bombings, that the driver's license could even be accessed by terrorists.

Keith Flynn is Vermont' commissioner of public safety. ­He says licensing all drivers will make the roads safer – and that it's important for everyone to carry ID.

"The privilege card also serves some other important purposes for us – regardless of who we're dealing with from a law enforcement perspective or what the circumstances are, it's important to an identification to that person, or at least have a starting point."

Questions about enforcement remain. Some municipal police departments, and the state police are not allowed to ask people their immigration status when they pull them over for a traffic offense.

And in northern Vermont, where border patrol maintains a strong presence, it's not clear if migrant workers will be able to take the road without a risk of getting pulled over and deported.

But for Marcos, Luis' coworker, fear of getting caught pales in comparison to the excitement of driving places, by himself.

I asked Marcos where he would go if we got a license.

"Everywhere!" he replies with a laugh.

 Luis, Marcos, and their coworkers say they plan to get ready for the road test and will ­­pool their resources to buy a used car. That way, Luis says, he could feel more free.

 

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