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Rhode Islanders press for drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants

On Tuesday, more than one hundred local politicians, clergy members, social justice activists, and community members gathered at the State House for the hearing of Bill 7610.

This bill would allow all people, regardless of their immigration status, to apply for drivers’ licenses. The licenses wouldn’t be legal forms of identification, but would let people drive legally without social security numbers.

Local groups like the Immigrant Action Committee and Comité en Acción are advocating with and on behalf of immigrants whose voices are often underrepresented in the political system. These groups, as well as Democratic Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Frank Ciccone, are leading the charge for expanded access to drivers’ licenses.

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Individuals directly affected by the issue attended the rally to advocate for themselves and those in similar circumstances. Elda says she knows the struggles of being denied a legal drivers’ license. Elda is from Mexico and has three children born in the US. She says that in order to take her kids to school and her husband to the doctor for his third degree burns, she risks and faces tickets and heavy fees.

“Yo vine aquí porque realmente necesito de la licencia porque necesito manejar para seguir trabajando, para seguir sacando adelante mi familia y seguir apoyando mi esposo,” Elda said.

Yaruska Ordinola, a student at the University of Rhode Island, is undocumented but is currently protected under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals policy. She said that it was difficult to talk to friends about being undocumented, but believes these conversations are important. 

“These are human beings and we are human beings and its tragic and it’s horrible that this is happening, but I think that little steps like this just really help the community feel safer,” Ordinalo said.

Elda and Yaruska are not the only ones struggling because they don’t have driver’s licenses. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 30,000 undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island. This means undocumented immigrants make up 4.6% of the state’s workforce.

Many other community members joined those directly affected to support the bill. Regarding the event’s turnout, Representative Diaz stated “in my 12 years here as a state legislator, it’s the first time I’ve seen so many people, of different backgrounds, different age, different nationality, out to support one issue.”

Local politicians have also expressed their support for the bill, among them Governor Gina Raimondo,  Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, and State Police Chief Steve O’Donnell.  

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mayor Elorza offered testimony in support of the bill. As a child of Guatemalan  immigrants, he related to the experiences of those affected.

“I have spoken to parents who simply want to bring their children to school. Forced to choose between giving their sons and daughters access to education and following the law,” Elorza stated.

Others, such as North Providence Democratic Representative Arthur Corvese, and the organization Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement feel differently about the bill. Representative Corvese proposed two countermeasures. One bill would block the renewal of licenses for those without Social Security numbers, and another would put stricter federal immigration laws in place at the state and local level. Corvese argued, “It is entirely unfair to law abiding Rhode Islanders particularly those who are legal immigrants who went through the lengthy and involved process to follow the proper channels when we make special allowances for those who have not.”

Representative Williams, who proposed bill 7610, responded to Corvese’s statement, arguing that the issue is first and foremost a matter of public safety. She argues undocumented people, who pay taxes and and are active members of society, will drive out of necessity, regardless of whether they have licenses.

“The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that all drivers on the road are knowledgeable of traffic safety laws and safe operation of motor vehicles,” Williams said.

Proponents of the law also argue that it would generate revenue in Rhode Island, because people would have to buy insurance and would be able to participate more actively in the economy.

The movement to make drivers licences more accessible is gaining support not only in Rhode Island, but across the US. Ten states and the District of Columbia passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses.

On Thursday, Rhode Island legislators recommended that the bill be held for further study, as opposed to being passed in its current state. The legislative process will continue, as will the community activism. Comité en Acción has planned two more events to support the bill, on Tuesday the 22nd and Thursday the 24th at the State House. 

Additional reporting by Sebastian Lucek, Tal Frieden, and Andie Corban. 

 

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