Migrant Justice Takes Huge Step Towards Access to Driver's Licenses in Vermont: Grassroots Campaign Momentum Growing For a Big Victory in 2013

Migrant Justice Takes Huge Step Towards Access to Driver's Licenses in Vermont

Grassroots Campaign Momentum Growing For a Big Victory in 2013

Dec. 14, 2012---After nearly a year of non-stop grassroots organizing, 35 farmworkers took to the State House on Thursday for a final push to successfully move a Legislative Study Committee to an 8-1 vote, recommending that Vermont create a law to allow undocumented residents to access driver's licenses and IDs in 2013! Long time Migrant Justice ally and P1010152faith community leader Laura O'Brien was there last Thursday and shares this reflection about the big day below. For a photo essay go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/migrantjustice/sets/72157632274984146/show/

Teacher and writer Parker Palmer talks about harnessing the “creative tension” of the world as a necessity for being an agent of change. That is, finding a way to operate in the world in that space between the way things are and the way we know they can and should be, without becoming so jaded or idealistic that action is impossible.

I would like to think the members of the Driver’s License Study Committee were able to do this on December 13, helped in large part by the imagery surely burned into their mind’s eyes throughout the morning’s proceedings. Around the center table of the House Chamber on Thursday morning this group of power holders was discussing the bureaucratic logistics of what it would mean to grant access to driver’s licenses to people without a Social Security number. And more specifically, how might Vermont’s migrant farmworkers fit into this system.

Now add to this image, say in 20 minute intervals, that every time a committee member looked up away from those seated at the table, there miraculously (or at least through the very hard work of Migrant Justice) appeared 4 or 5 more migrant workers, until the seats in the House Chamber usually held by Vermont’s Representatives were now filled with more than 35 farmworkers. Additional seats were occupied by dozens of their allies, ranging in age from 4 to 85.

P1010040Five farmworkers spoke to the committee that morning – Over Lopez, David Santiago, Efren Battista, Danilo Lopez and Alberto Madrigal. All spoke from their hearts about their lives, their contributions to Vermont’s economy and their frustrations at being forced to live less than dignified lives due in part to lack of access to transportation. The final piece of farmworker testimony, from Alberto Madrigal, was poetic and powerful. “Today I am here asking to be seen as equal to you. My name is Alberto Madrigal. My name is not immigrant. I have a name. My life gives me a name and I am here to be seen and respected as what I am, a human being.”

As has been the case for each of these committee meetings, members of the committee were forced to consider their charge of studying state policy within the bounds of this so-called creative tension. The voice committed to a legalistic framework of the world was at the forefront of every committee discussion. Yet at the same time, committee members heard testimony that told a different story, one based in a world where people matter more than policy and where every person has a right to live in a world with dignity at its core.

Later in the morning, two allies gave testimony from a Christian perspective. Rev. Will Burhans from the Charlotte Congregational Church, UCC, told the committee that it is an imperative of the Christian faith to break through barriers, as Jesus was constantly going across borders of what was outlined as appropriate and inappropriate for the sake of the people on the outside.

Sylvia Knight, also testifying as a person of faith, did so because she was moved by her knowledge of the isolation and vulnerability of migrant farmworkers in Vermont. In closing, she asked the committee to remember in this season of Advent that soon after Jesus was born his family was forced to flee to Egypt. As political refugees they were at the mercy of others in their attempt to keep the family alive and safe. They, too, had in effect become undocumented.

Later in the day a press conference was held in which leaders of faith, labor and student groups all spoke in support of driver’s license access and Migrant Justice’s human rights efforts.

Muhyedeen Batah from the Islamic Center of Vermont reminded all present that the United States is a nation of immigrants and that is one of our true strengths as a country. Rev. Kim Erno, a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church offered a fiery analogy between the plight of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers seeking a place where they can provide for their families in the midst of an unjust global economic system with the Christmas tradition of Las Posadas, where people portraying Joseph and Mary knock on doors asking for shelter, for space where they, too, can find refuge from a system of empire that displaces people.

Arunulfo Ramirez, a farmworker from Northern Vermont spoke during the press conference from his perspective not only as a farmworker but also as a person of faith. He challenged the very notion of political borders, saying these were not created by God. He went on to say that in fact, God calls Christians to answer to a different set of laws, including the directive to love your neighbor as yourself.

But it was the opening of the press conference that held the most striking image of the day. P1010129Rev. Erica Baron, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rutland, was dressed in a black robe and red stole as she described the Interfaith Solidarity Statement for Immigrant Justice and Human Rights. And flanking her on all sides, not unlike a gospel choir, were more than 35 migrant farmworkers with the black and white of Justicia Migrante/Migrant Justice emblazoned across their shirts. This was a reminder, if ever we needed one, that as much as Vermont’s farmworkers may need allies to address human rights abuses in our state, faith groups need migrant farmworkers, the “stranger” in a Christian analogy, to remind them again what it means to live a life of faith.

For those people who celebrate Christmas and study the Bible the creative tension within this holiday itself is apparent. Christmas is not about a meek, mild Mary and a beatific scene in a stable, and it’s certainly not about fueling the economy. It is largely about power structures being turned on their heads, as we are presented with an image of an all-powerful infant who “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”. And that is exactly what we got a taste of at the State House on December 13. When the Driver’s License Study Committee voted to recommend access to driver’s licenses, power was shifted in a small way to those who live their lives on the margins in Vermont, supporting our agricultural economy in the face of a denial of human rights. Surely that is the best Christmas present many of us will receive this year.

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