Vermonters closely watch federal immigration debate

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(Host) The state’s dairy farmers and Vermonters who help illegal immigrants are keeping a close eye on the U.S. Senate this week. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amendment that would allow foreign workers to get visas to work in the dairy industry.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) An immigration bill that passed the House late last year would criminalize some of Patrick Giantonio’s work. Giantonio is with Vermont Refugee Assistance. In 2005, the organization helped 506 people. Many of them were forced to flee their homelands and were seeking asylum in the U.S. or Canada. But sometimes that means volunteers help out people who lack the proper documentation, or whose visa has expired.

(Giantonio) “Those actions would be criminal actions if this bill is passed in its present form.”

(Dillon) Giantonio says the bill would also make it a felony for anybody who is in the country illegally. He says that provision compounds the difficulty for people who need political asylum.

(Giantonio) “So here you have someone who has fled for their life, they’ve probably been persecuted or tortured in their home country. They find their way to the U.S. Now, basically, they would be considered a felon.”

(Dillon) The immigration bill is now in the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee has tried to blunt some of the tougher provisions in the House version. For example, the committee has approved a measure that would protect those who assist illegal immigrants.

Senator Patrick Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the committee.

(Leahy) “You can’t have a situation where, say a church group is running a soup kitchen and somebody says, ‘Well you’re a criminal if you feed some starving person if they’re an illegal alien.’ I thought that the Beatitudes spoke about feeding the hungry. This makes very, very little sense.”

(Dillon) The committee has also taken steps to make it easier for immigrants to work in the dairy industry. The committee approved a Leahy amendment that would extend work visas for foreign agriculture workers, including those in the dairy industry.

Vermont has about 2,000 Mexicans working on dairy farms, and many of them are here illegally. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says the amendment is a workable solution to the tough problem of farm labor.

(Kerr) “Finally in this otherwise really bizarre debate over immigration, which has so far ignored both the employment and the human dimension of this difficult matter, we got something on the table that is practical, workable and downright common sensible.”

(Dillon) The amendment would allow foreign dairy employees to work on visas for up to three years, with an opportunity to achieve permanent resident status.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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