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Vermont driving bill tied to national immigration issue

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Advocates for Vermont’s migrant laborers know that a driver’s license bill, such as the one being considered by the Vermont Legislature, is a short-term solution to what is ultimately a federal problem. Few would dispute that the dairy industries in states like Vermont have been saved by migrant labor, but the federal government does not offer a visa program to supply labor-strapped dairy farms with legal, documented foreign workers, like the H-2A visa does for seasonal agricultural work.
In recent weeks, a coalition in the U.S. Senate, led by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, has pushed for what is now the fifth version of an immigration reform bill in Washington, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” which was introduced by eight senators on April 17.
On Monday, two Vermonters testified in support of the bill on Capitol Hill: Megan Smith, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, who affirmed to lawmakers the need for seasonal workers in Vermont’s tourism industries, and Addison County resident Alyson Eastman, of Orwell, who testified about the critical role of migrant workers in Vermont agriculture.
Eastman’s Orwell-based company, Book-Ends Associates, works with Vermont farms helping them to apply for, manage and comply with the H-2A seasonal agricultural visa program at the U.S. Department of Labor.
The proposed bill, in its current incarnation, would replace the H-2A program with a comprehensive farm worker program. Undocumented workers currently working on U.S. farms would be eligible for a “blue card” that would allow them to stay, though they would not be eligible for public benefits. After five years, blue card holders would be eligible for a green card if certain conditions were met.
Eastman told lawmakers in Washington that she had seen firsthand the problems that Vermont’s farmers have had with the H-2A program, as well as the shortcomings and problems with the Department of Labor, or DOL.
“It’s very difficult to work with the DOL because they don’t understand agriculture,” Eastman told the Independent in a Monday phone interview.
For example, she said, her Orwell turkey farm had had to prove to the DOL that turkey farms needed more labor during the pre-Thanksgiving processing season.
Eastman was aware of the legislation unfolding at the state level, but said she was not in favor of the driver’s license bill because she was concerned about who would pay the insurance for migrant worker vehicles. She added that the migrant workers that Book-Ends Associates represents are also all documented, and driving licenses are not a privilege they are granted for two to four years after arriving legally.
However, Eastman said she understood and sympathized with the intention behind the bill.
“Just because I’m not in favor (of the driver’s license bill) it doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” said Eastman. “But if the bill goes through on a national level, it takes care of the problem.”

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