The Vermont Senate overwhelmingly advanced a bill on Friday that would give driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The bill would create what are described as drivers' authorization cards for people living in Vermont illegally. It would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue IDs that would look different from a regular state license.
Advocates for migrant workers who came to the United States illegally have spent two years lobbying for the bill. On Friday, their work paid off: senators voted 27 to 2 in favor of a version drafted by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders and the Shumlin administration.
Immigration is a big political issue right now. In Washington, Congress is debating how to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. In Vermont, that debate has business implications, too. Vermont's dairy industry depends on an estimated 1,500 migrant farm workers.
"They watch out for the farm, and the family watches out for them," said Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who pointed to a study commissioned by the Legislature last year that found it's hard for migrant workers to get around the state even to receive basic services.
On the Senate floor, Baruth ended the one-sided debate by recalling "the long tradition in Vermont of the hired man."
"A lot of time the hired man makes the difference between make or break for the farm," Baruth said. "I think it's fair to say that in the 21st century in Vermont this group of workers - migrant workers - are the new hired men."
Migrant workers and their advocates have argued the bill would allow them to come out of the shadows and move about the state more freely. Only New Mexico, Utah and Washington State have passed similar measures.
In Vermont, though, the measure has its critics. Republican Senator Norman McAllister of Franklin County, a goat farmer, expressed some of his constituents' concerns about issuing drivers' IDs to migrant workers, even if the bill requires they pass a written test and drivers' test without a translator.
"Living on the border where we do and also hearing from our farms and their nervousness as to what the liability situation could be, I can't support this bill," McAllister said on Friday shortly before casting his vote. "Just the little bit that I looked into it, it didn't seem to pass muster."
After the vote, migrant workers wearing t-shirts and jeans celebrated and thanked lawmakers in suits, including Senate President John Campbell as he walked off the Senate floor.
"Now listen, no one gets tickets," Campbell told them, laughing. "Then we'd all be in trouble!"
Among the migrant workers in the Senate gallery was Gilberto Lopez, who arrived in Vermont from Mexico a year and a half ago to milk cows on a dairy farm in East Montpelier. Lopez said the bill would give him and his co-workers a new sense of dignity.
"It's a good thing because we will have the liberty and ability to be able to do the things that we would like to do," Lopez explained, speaking through a translator. "It's been difficult. There have been instances when I've needed to go to the doctor and I wasn't able to because I couldn't find someone to give me a ride."
Lopez and other migrant workers say they're hopeful the bill will pass easily in the House. Governor Peter Shumln has said he would sign the measure into law if it reaches his desk.