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Welcoming immigrant workers is good for Vermont

The Pew Research Center estimates that there are several thousand undocumented immigrants in Vermont. These workers pay roughly $3 million in taxes annually and support a number of state industries, especially agriculture.  And their contributions aren’t just economic: immigrants writ large are an integral part of our families, schools and communities.

However, changes to state policy could improve life for Vermont’s immigrants who are undocumented—and help the state’s economy at the same time. That’s according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

The report focuses on four things that states can do to provide more stability and economic opportunity to undocumented immigrants, despite efforts in Washington that are pulling in the other direction:

  1. Allow immigrants who are undocumented to obtain driver’s licenses, which would not only help them get better jobs but could improve public safety and modestly reduce insurance premiums.
  2. Allow students regardless of documentation to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities and to obtain state financial aid, which over time would boost the skills and wages of the state workforce.
  3. Expand health care coverage to all children regardless of immigration status, which can lead to better long-term health outcomes, greater high school and college completion, and long-term economic benefits both for the children and states and local communities.
  4. Strengthen labor law enforcement to ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, are paid what they earn. Reining in illegal underpayment would also help level the playing field for all businesses and workers that are complying with wage and employment laws.

Currently, only one of these four policies is in force in Vermont. The state offers driver’s licenses regardless of status. However, immigrants without documents are understandably wary of providing information to the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles after reports that the department was sharing it with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), resulting in the arrests of several migrant workers. While Vermont has since limited the practice, a lawsuit and investigation into exactly what is shared and when are ongoing.

There is no explicit statewide policy offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant residents. That is not to say there would be no enthusiasm for such a policy among Vermont’s educators. For instance, several institutions, including the University of Vermont and Middlebury College, came out in support of undocumented students at the beginning of the fight around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2018. Such efforts can go only so far, however, as the lack of access to federal financial aid and the complicated rules around establishing residency in Vermont limit undocumented students’ access to higher education.

Federal policy also prohibits the use of Medicaid money for undocumented residents, which limits what states can do with federal dollars. However, six states and the District of Columbia use state funding to guarantee health care to children regardless of immigration status and California recently became the first state to expand coverage to undocumented immigrants up to age 25. As for ensuring that workers get paid fairly for their work, Vermont is one of 33 states with fewer than 10 investigators to look into wage complaints, limiting the effectiveness of existing labor law.

Given all the effort this administration has put into enticing workers to Vermont, why not make it easier for the people already here to work, attend school, and achieve economic security? Vermont could enact more deliberate policies to make our state more welcoming to immigrants.

Posted by Stephanie Yu on October 10, 2019 at 11:47 am

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