MONTPELIER, Vt. - As some states crack down on illegal immigrants, Vermont lawmakers are discussing creating a guest worker program that would include state IDs for the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants who work on Vermont dairy farms and who officials say have become critical to the struggling industry.
There's already a federal guest worker program for seasonal farm workers and for ski resort employees, said state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, sponsor of the bill, on Thursday. The University of Vermont has visiting professors that don't seem to have problems, she said.
"So it just seemed a little bit unfair to me," she told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
Because their business is year-round, dairy farms aren't eligible for workers under the temporary visa worker programs used by farmers raising apples and other crops.
Immigration is a federal issue, "But I think that in Vermont doing something against the federal (government) has never stopped us before. We seem to be willing to do it if it's the right thing to do," she said.
Immigrant farm workers now face discrimination, fears of deportation and a lack of services, advocates say.
Migrant Justice, formerly called the Vermont Farmworker Solidarity Project, has shared the proposal with the farm worker community, who is thankful for it and sees it as a positive step, said Danilo Lopez, a member of the organization.
"What we see in this law in terms of the concrete benefits to be recognized as residents with the same rights and access to the different services as anyone without having fear of discrimination," said Lopez, a former farm worker from Mexico, who was detained by state police during a traffic stop. The stop led Vermont's governor to change the state police policy on dealing with suspected illegal immigrants, clarifying that troopers will not ask an individual about his or her immigration status when investigating a civil violation - mainly a traffic stop - but can ask about it in investigations of criminal offenses or suspicious activity in certain cases.
The bill would create a state identification card for the workers and a registry of those workers that would allow them to be eligible for state services.
White suggested that a cap could be set on the number of workers allowed based on the number needed by dairy farms.
Concerns were raised about what state agency would keep the registry of workers and issue the identifications. White, who said she had talked to a member of the state police who supported the idea, suggested the Department of Public Safety. Others suggested the secretary of state's office.