Religious coalition backs migrant rights
By David Taube
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | October 23,2012
Adam Caira / Staff Photo
Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont addresses the media during a Statehouse news conference Monday where the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society made a statement on immigration and voiced its support for migrant workers in Vermont. Behind Ely from left to right are Roy V. Hill II, president of the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society, and Danilo Lopez, a farm worker and advocate with Migrant Justice.
MONTPELIER — Religious leaders and advocates gathered at the Statehouse on Monday to call for communities across Vermont to provide human dignity and a sense of hospitality to migrant workers who are in this country unlawfully.
The urging came as the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society — a group the encompasses eight denominations and seeks to facilitate dialogue, prayer and collaboration — issued a statement calling for just and fair national, state and local policies and actions regarding migrant workers who are here illegally.
“We believe there’s an important moral dimension to this conversation,” said Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. “We also believe it’s important to name the larger context which impels people to leave their homes in search of work in a strange and often hostile country.”
“Simply put, poverty drives migration. As Christians, we seek to address the many faces of poverty, wherever they impact our world and its people,” he said.
Ely said Scripture calls people to build community, not fences, and he hoped Monday’s statement will advance the conversation.
Issues at play include access to driver’s licenses and the fairness of work visa regulations.
A state committee formed to consider providing access to driver’s licenses to migrant workers is evaluating options. That committee meets again Friday.
But religious and human rights advocates suggested the issue was deeper than that.
Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said the system is in need of reform. He said seasonal workers from foreign countries can get work visas for “temporary” jobs like apple picking, Christmas tree farming and sheep herding.
The dairy industry, however, runs year-round. And Brendan O’Neill, who works with the advocacy organization Migrant Justice, said visas are not available for dairy workers because federal law targets workforce areas that are typically underemployed and seasonal.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has unsuccessfully sought to make work visas available to dairy workers. Ely said Leahy has been a champion in advocating for an expanded work visa program.
The state’s dairy industry employes at least 1,200 workers, many of whom are likely in the country unlawfully because work visas last only about 10 months, said O’Neill.
As part of a background paper that will be posted on the Vermont Ecumenical Council’s website, the organization’s Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation committee recommended that comprehensive immigration reform include:
— Policies based on the protection of human rights, rather than a system designed to supply cheap labor to employers.
— Policies that encourage sustainable development and living wages in one’s home country.
— Immigration policy that keeps families together.
— Not allowing a worker’s immigration status to allow arrest, detention or deportation, while providing the right to counsel and a fair trial.
The committee also recommended changes for Vermont policymakers and law enforcement agencies, including the provision of interpretive services to all non-English speakers to improve medical care and social services.
Danilo Lopez, a farm worker and advocate with Migrant Justice, also spoke at the Statehouse event Monday.
With a Spanish-speaking translator at his side, Lopez said the Bible, which he has been reading for a long time, says to respect your neighbor as though they were one of you.
The council’s website, www.vecbs.org, also plans to post a Bible study about the topic.
“When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive,” a portion of the statement on immigration says.