Hungering For a Driver’s License: Effort by Undocumented Comes Close, But Not This Year

Almost lost amid last week’s celebrations of the same-sex marriage bill that became law, a handful of Latino activists camped out on the Minnesota State Capitol lawn, hoping to win passage of a Driver’s Licenses for All bill. Some of them were on a hunger strike to prove a point that even undocumented citizens need a drivers license.

The effort failed as time ran out on the 2013 Legislature, which is scheduled to end today. Activists were hoping that the Legislature would take up Senate File 271, a bill sponsored by Sen. Bobby Jo Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. The senate did pass the bill on Saturday, but House agreement was not forthcoming and the law is likely to be shelved until 2014.

“Let me just say, I’m glad you guys are here because it’s important that we keep this issue alive,” said Champion to activists gathered in the Capitol Rotunda last Tuesday. “We think it’s important for all Minnesotans to have a drivers license, am I right?”

The small crowd cheered him on.

Latino immigrants say the law would grant them much needed driving privileges. Some drive without a license now, fearing arrest but wanting to be on the right side of the law. Undocumented citizens would be permitted to apply for a license if they possess identification from their native country. The license would be issued for driving privileges only. Read the full text of the bill here.

As the Capitol steps were being prepped for the days historic marriage bill signing, hunger strikers camped outside Governor Dayton’s office. Dayton talked briefly with the activists but did not lend his support for drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Earlier, the senate’s DFL Majority Leader, Tom Bakk, spoke to Latino activists and expressed his support.

“The governor doesn’t quite understand the importance of this bill for driver’s licenses for undocumented citizens of Minnesota,” said Bakk at the Rotunda rally. “We are going to meet with the governor’s chief of staff to discuss this issue,” Bakk added. That meeting, however, will have to wait, perhaps until next year: Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn until 2014 tonight.

Nineteen year-old Nestor Gomez is a dreamer. He’s working with MESA Latina, a coalition of Latino activists that advocates for fair employment and better treatment of undocumented citizens. They organized last week’s rally. Gomez was also on a hunger strike last week. He’s been in Minnesota for 10 years as an undocumented citizen after he left his home state of Morelos, Mexico. Without a license, he says he won’t be allowed to go to college, despite the passage of Minnesota’s Dream Act, because a state ID is needed to obtain financial aid. Earlier this month, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the author of the Dream Act, spoke to hundreds of May Day and immigration activists on the capitol steps right after the bill’s passage.

“How does the Governor (Dayton) support the marriage equality bill but not support the driver’s license bill,” Gomez asked as he and fellow hunger strikers watched and cheered on Aztec dancers on the Capitol steps.
“That’s really a paradox. Is Minnesota equal, if all residents don’t have driver’s licenses, not have the same rights as everyone else? You gotta question that.”

The licenses, MESA LATINA claims, are critical for public safety since many undocumented citizens drive without licenses, making them subject to arrest even though they want to be on the right side of the law. They need to be able to take their kids to school, go to church or shop for groceries.

The bill would have allowed those who have identification from their country of origin to be eligible for a license. A sticker would be affixed to the license indicating that it is for driving, only. Some lawmakers, such as Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, feared it would be used to register to vote.

Even though the bill did not get approved during this session, supporters say the issue has gone further than before and will lay the groundwork for the 2014 session. Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, is one of those vowing to fight on.

“No me daré por vencida,” she she told a large crowd gathered on Sunday evening at the Capitol.

“I will not give up.”

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Allison Herrera

Allison Herrera, originally from San Luis Obispo, Calif.,  studied media and Spanish at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where she earned her bachelor s. Since moving to the Twin Cities, she has been a news producer for KFAI Fresh Air Community Radio, communications coordinator for Twin Cities Public Television's arts series MN Original, and producer for the Association of Minnesota Public and Educational Radios Stations for the series MN90: Minnesota History in 90 Seconds.

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