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Minnesota should approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

The right to a driver’s licenses is the right to be a part of society. Without driver’s licenses, undocumented immigrants are left segregated from their documented neighbors and coworkers, unable to participate fully in community life.

While many of the arguments in favor of the current bill before the Minnesota Legislature that would make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants have focused on questions of public safety or potential economic benefits, I am writing today to emphasize the moral necessity of the proposal, and its power to benefit all workers, citizen and immigrant both.

Duncan Riley
Duncan Riley
The right to a driver’s license is the right to be a part of society. Without driver’s licenses, undocumented immigrants are left segregated from their documented neighbors and coworkers, unable to participate fully in community life. This marginalization in the community facilitates economic exploitation, as bosses and corporations take advantage of immigrants’ vulnerability, paying them low wages and violating their rights as workers.

The denial of driver’s licenses strikes at the most basic of rights, the right to work, or at least the right to work without fear that an encounter with the police on your commute could lead to deportation. This fear, created by the laws of our government, is an assault on the liberty and dignity of immigrants. Further, these attacks on immigrants harm all workers, diminishing our ability to join together to fight for a better society, while emboldening those who would rob us of our rights and freedoms. The myriad divisions between citizen and noncitizen run like fault lines across our society, threatening to consume us all.  

There are, of course, those who believe that the undocumented immigrants should not have rights, as they supposedly do not have a right to be here. Let us analyze, for a moment, what causes immigrants to come here, taking Mexico as an example. Ever since the approval of NAFTA and the abolition of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, Mexico’s small farmers and peasants have been driven from their lands by powerful and wealthy North American businesses and left with little choice but to immigrate north. Mexico’s urban workers were not spared either, their factories shut down by North American competition, forcing them either into the miserable conditions of maquiladoras or northwards.

Capital is allowed to move freely across borders; its victims are met with barbed wire and armed guards. Equally, we could point to the United States’ historical and current support for authoritarian regimes in Central America as a cause of immigration, alongside its interventions in conflicts across the world, whether Vietnam or the Ogaden War. Immigrants and refugees are driven from their homes by conflicts and depressions sparked by U.S. policy, only to be met with xenophobia and exploitation in their new home.

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At present, the fate of the campaign for driver’s licenses for all lies in the balance. Amendments that would force immigrants to undergo criminal background checks to obtain licenses and emblazon the new card with the words “Not valid for voting” threaten to convert a step toward liberation into just another law reinforcing the segregation between citizen and immigrant. Despite this, popular mobilization for driver’s licenses that will truly be for all continues to push the project forward, demanding that immigrants obtain licenses on the same terms as citizens.

Hundreds of people filled the Capitol on the day of the House floor vote, and thousands are expected to participate in this year’s May 1 march to the Capitol for immigrants and workers’ rights, demanding driver’s licenses for all (3 p.m., gathering point: University Avenue & Dale, St. Paul). Through popular actions such as these, we can topple the inequities and injustices which characterize our present society, and remind the world that it is from the people, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship status, that democracy sprouts.

Duncan Riley is a student of history and psychology at Hamline University in St. Paul and an active member of the May 1st Coalition Twin Cities.

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