At the Statehouse this week, some Vermont farm owners are raising public safety and liability concerns about a bill that would grant driver identification cards to Vermont residents who are in this country illegally.
It’s the latest effort to stall the legislation, which easily cleared the Senate earlier this month. But migrant workers and their advocates say some of the farmers’ arguments and allegations sound offensive and discriminatory.
In emotional testimony, farm owners said, yes, they respect their Hispanic workers, but they’re concerned that if the bill passes some of them would be unfit to drive.
“There’s not a politically correct way to say it,” explained Rebecca Howrigan, a dairy farmer who testified before the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday. Her family farm near the Canadian border hires four Hispanic workers.
“As a whole, what I’ve seen, they like to drink,” she said. “Some of the guys that I’ve gotten to know and to trust that have worked for us have said that it’s hard for them to sit down and just have a drink after work.”
Howrigan told lawmakers that her experience should raise concerns about the bill that would allow people who can prove identity and residency in Vermont to get a driving privilege card.
Howrigan is not alone in her judgment.
Alma Briggs, a dairy farmer from Addison, started hiring migrant workers only after she could not find local high school kids to do the job. Briggs said some migrant workers are not responsible enough to be granted a drivers’ authorization card, recalling one worker who was preparing to return to Mexico.
“Two days before his plane ticket was ready to go he came to me and he said he had to have a suitcase and we had to go shopping for a suitcase,” Briggs said on Wednesday. “So, you know, they don’t plan ahead. They don’t do these extra things.”
Briggs said Vermont farmers are “struggling to deal with a different culture.” Other members of Vermont’s farming community, though, object to that broad characterization.
“Farmers tend to be conservative, and I view this as a progressive move,” said Seth Gardner, who runs a dairy farm in East Montpelier where he employs four migrant workers. Gardner supports the bill because, he said, it’s all about empowerment. He wants to distance himself from any offensive remarks.
“I think there’s a tiny bit of racism perhaps mixed in this,” Gardner said, reacting to this week’s testimony. “This bill is akin to the discussions about the emancipation of the slaves in the South. I really feel that, and I don’t want to be on the South’s side.”
Among the migrant farm workers who said they were enraged to hear the farmers’ testimony this week was Alberto Madrigal. He works on a farm in Irasburg, sending half of his earnings home to Mexico.
“It’s pretty incredible that people who are just like us would paint us with such a broad brush,” Madrigal said. “How could they say that I’m a drunk? They don’t even know me, so I felt pretty upset.”
Of course, in any community, Madrigal admitted, there are some ‘bad apples’ but that shouldn’t stop the Legislature from passing the drivers’ ID bill.
The House Transportation Committee will continue to take testimony this week. The Democrat-controlled House is expected to pass the bill before the end of the session, and Governor Peter Shumlin has said he’ll sign it.