Advocates representing undocumented farmworkers living in Vermont cheered a legal settlement with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, hoping it helps reduce fears that people could be deported if they seek the right to drive.
“We look forward to a new day at the Vermont DMV,” said Lia Ernst, an attorney with the ACLU of Vermont who worked on the settlement between the DMV and plaintiffs that included migrant workers.
The settlement ends legal wrangling over the state’s role in a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit filed in late 2018.
“We are now finally realizing the promise that was made years ago to respect the right to freedom of movement for all, without discrimination,” Enrique Balcazar, an activist with the group Migrant Justice, said through an interpreter.
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Balcazar was detained by the feds in 2017, and faced possible deportation, stemming from what the National Immigration Law Center described as government weaponization of his DMV data.
Migrant workers on Vermont farms may be undocumented, but the state sees their labor as so critical to the dairy industry here, it allows those folks to apply for driving privileges.
The 2013 state law that allowed for the driving privilege cards followed a campaign led by Migrant Justice.
The just-settled lawsuit pointed to a pattern of information-sharing where some DMV workers would tip off immigration investigators about applicants for driving cards.
Migrant Justice said the feds then used that info to follow and arrest farm workers, even leading to deportations. The group could not say how many people working in Vermont were deported but described the number as significant.
Now, under the settlement, the DMV will handle paperwork differently, will have to strictly follow impartial policing rules, and employees will be retrained–including on anti-bias measures.
Additionally, a third-party auditor will ensure everything’s done properly, according to settlement details released by the ACLU and Migrant Justice.
Commissioner Wanda Minoli of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles provided NECN with a written statement following the announcement of the settlement.
"I’m pleased we were able to work with Migrant Justice to reach an agreement,” Minoli wrote. “Since 2017 we have been working to improve our policies and procedures and have implemented the State’s new Fair and Impartial Policing Policy.”
Minoli also said the Vermont DMV will work to ensure fairness and equity in the way all its patrons are treated.
“We have been listening to the concerns of Migrant Justice and have been working together to find a path forward,” the commissioner’s statement continued. “We believe these efforts have been important to help ensure that regardless of immigration status, individuals are not afraid to gain access to driver’s privilege cards.”
A member of the Vermont farmworker community named Uriel, who asked that his last name not be used in news reports, said he now feels much more comfortable in seeking a driver privilege card.
“This will be something that benefits so many people in our community, who’ll be able to fully exercise this right and to be able to drive safely and securely on the roads of Vermont,” Uriel said.
The settlement does not close a complaint against ICE—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and U.S. Homeland Security, alleging those agencies harassed and detained farmworkers and their advocates.
ICE said at the time the suit was filed that it couldn’t comment on pending litigation.