Vt. Allows Migrants to Drive

Thursday, June 06, 2013
Montpelier — Danilo Lopez had his moment in the sun Wednesday, describing a nearly two-year struggle that began with the car in which he was a passenger being stopped by a state trooper and culminating in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s signing of a new law creating a new type of driver’s license available to people in the country illegally.

“We left fear behind and we left the shadows to come out and organize for our rights,” said Lopez, 23, who has worked on a Charlotte dairy farm for much of his nearly six years in Vermont.

But Lopez may never be a legal Vermont driver himself. His appeal of a deportation order was rejected last week; he’s been ordered to leave the country by July 5.

After the trooper who stopped his driver for speeding turned Lopez and a companion over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Lopez became a leader among the estimated 1,500 workers who provide crucial labor on Vermont dairy farms but who are in the country illegally.

Working with the advocacy group Migrant Justice, Lopez got a taste of the American dream — the part about being able to go to the halls of power, in this case the Vermont Statehouse, and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Testifying to lawmakers repeatedly through his interpreter, Migrant Justice organizer Natalia Fajardo, Lopez said he and his friends wanted to be able to drive so they could get groceries, see a doctor or socialize on a weekend night without relying on their employers for rides.

Lawmakers and Shumlin got the message. “This bill is an example of Vermont’s common sense and compassion,” the governor said just before signing legislation making Vermont the ninth state with a law granting driving privileges to immigrants in the country illegally.

“Since we know in Vermont that we can’t get milk to market, that we can’t get our ag products to bigger markets without some foreign labor, this bill gives our guest workers the ability, the privilege, if they pass all the tests and requirements, to get a driver’s license,” the governor said.

There was some opposition in the Legislature. Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said yesterday she failed to get a provision added to the bill requiring those with the driver’s privilege card to get a more expensive type of car insurance in which the company automatically notifies the Department of Motor Vehicles if a payment is missed, and the driver’s license is suspended.

Drivers in the country in violation of immigration law are more likely to slip into hiding after an accident, Flory said. “There’s no way to track these folks at all. They can move to another farm or move anyplace. You’re never going to find them,” she said. “That’s what bothers me.”

After Lopez spoke yesterday of his desire that all human beings be treated equally, he described in an interview the irony of participating in the democratic process through his lobbying at the Statehouse, followed by the federal government’s order that he leave the country.

“I feel that we have to change this irony. I think people should be able to leave when they want and they’re ready and people should not be run out,” he said.

But whatever happens with his own immigration case, “I’m really proud of the work we’ve been able to do. Many of us thought this wouldn’t be possible,” Lopez said.

Brendan O’Neill, another organizer with Migrant Justice, said the group planned to help Lopez fight his deportation. He said Wednesday it was launching a petition drive. He said there is precedent for prosecutorial discretion by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement of the sort that could allow Lopez to remain in the country.

Ivan Ortiz-Delgado, a spokesman for the federal agency, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Flory pointed to a difference in how federal law treats seasonal immigrant farm workers, who are allowed to get visas, and dairy workers, who are in the country longer term.

“What I think should happen is the feds should get off stick and pass something similar to what they did with the seasonal workers,” she said.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill due up for debate in the U.S. Senate next week contains provisions that would allow visas for immigrant dairy workers to remain in the country three years, with a three-year renewal. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will be managing that floor debate.

“States have had to cobble together their own patchwork solutions in coping with the broken immigration system,” Leahy said Wednesday. “Comprehensive national immigration reform is long overdue.”

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