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Vt. House Gives Initial OK for Immigrant Drivers’ Licenses

Montpelier — The Vermont House yesterday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow immigrant farmworkers who are in the country illegally to drive in Vermont, with a new type of driver’s privilege card.

“Immigrant workers face significant challenges because they are currently ineligible to travel independently to purchase basic necessities like food, or to access medical care and other services,” Rep. Mollie Burke, D/P-Brattleboro, told her House colleagues as she introduced the bill.

The House’s voice vote in favor of the bill — final approval is expected today — came 20 months after Vermont State Police stopped a car containing two passengers who were Mexican immigrant farmworkers in the country illegally and turned them over to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Critics accused police of racial profiling, and Gov. Peter Shumlin called for a new policy of “bias-free” policing. Lawmakers, meanwhile, created a study committee that made recommendations that were turned into the current legislation.

One of the two passengers detained by state police, Danilo Lopez, said through an interpreter yesterday he was gratified the bill appeared to be on its way to passage. “There are beautiful places in Vermont I would like to see,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to “having a social life. I’m 23 years old, and a lot of my peers are stuck in one place. That’s not a life for someone that age.”

The bill has generated more debate among House members than in the Senate, where it passed last month on a vote of 27 to 2.

Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton, a longtime store owner, questioned Burke during House debate about whether the driver’s privilege card might be used as identification to purchase alcohol. She answered that that was possible, adding that the result might higher sales for some Vermont retailers.

Hubert warned that retailers would not be familiar with the new form of ID, which the bill would have go into use January 1. He said store owners found to have sold alcohol to underage customers can be fined $600, with clerks fined $300, which he complained would not be fair.

Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, later said that he expects an amendment is likely to be offered when the bill is up for final action today that would ban the use of the new privilege card as ID when buying alcohol.

He said another amendment expected to be offered would require people getting the cards to be fingerprinted.