The bill passed by the Vermont Senate giving unauthorized immigrants in Vermont the right to drive is part of a larger movement that has gained momentum with great rapidity in recent days. Earlier this week tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered before the U.S. Capitol for music and speeches aimed at pushing Congress toward comprehensive immigration reform.
The bill making its way through the Vermont Legislature was inspired in part by an incident in 2011 when police stopped a car with two passengers who were Mexican immigrants here illegally. The police officers turned the two passengers over to the U.S. Border Patrol, touching off charges of racial profiling. In response Gov. Peter Shumlin initiated a policy of bias-free policing, and the Vermont State Police were not to concern themselves with enforcing federal immigration law.
That incident put a face on the issue of illegal immigration. One of the passengers, later released by the Border Patrol, was Danilo Lopez, who has been outspoken on the need for a more compassionate policy toward immigrants. It is a call heard far and wide these days as Americans look around them and notice the many millions of people who are here, part of our communities, performing essential work, supporting families, paying taxes.
It is remarkable how change happens. Just a year or two ago, Republican political candidates were vying over how mean-spirited they could sound toward unauthorized immigrants. Mitt Romney, the failed presidential candidate, favored what he called self-deportation, meaning we ought to make the United States so unwelcoming and miserable toward immigrants that they would deport themselves. Meanwhile, Democrats, including the president, were stymied by Republican opposition from taking meaningful steps to solve the immigration problem.
The problem is that as many as 11 million people live in the United States illegally. The problem for them is that they must live in the shadow of the fear that at any time they could be snatched up, jailed and deported for a violation that is not even a criminal offense. It is a violation of civil law. They are also vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and are barred from essential services and rights — like the right to drive.
The problem for business is that these workers form a labor pool that is exploitable, meaning unscrupulous employers can undercut businesses that play by the book. It is questionable whether foreign labor is stealing jobs from American workers. Rather, immigrant labor is performing work that local workers shun — slaughtering cattle, picking tomatoes, cleaning hotel rooms, milking cows.
Vermont farmers depend on unauthorized Mexican farmworkers — which means that Vermont’s economy does also. As many as 1,500 immigrants are at work on Vermont farms. They have made a difficult journey like the one most of our immigrant ancestors made, in search of opportunity. They do not deserve to be treated as an underclass. They should not have to live in fear, afraid to leave the farm to buy groceries, visit their children’s school or go to the doctor’s office. They deserve some form of legal license to drive. Eventually, they deserve the right to show that they will become good citizens of the United States.
It rubs some people the wrong way that people might be rewarded for breaking the law — granted citizenship after arriving here in violation of the rules. Maintaining the semblance of an orderly immigration process will help keep immigration in check, but the tide of human migration follows rules of aspiration, ambition and yearning that go beyond whatever legal framework or fences we might erect. We need to respect those aspirations and the people among us who have shown they are willing to make sacrifices to improve the lives of their families.
Giving them license to drive is the least of it. Congress must continue to make strides toward compassionate treatment of those among us who arrived not at Ellis Island, but at Addison or Bridport, where they are milking the cows that are at the center of Vermont’s agricultural economy and where they are beginning a new life north of the border.
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