Buried in the Senate’s omnibus transportation bill is a small item of huge importance to a voiceless group of Minnesotans who once tried to stay invisible.
The language in the bill would allow undocumented workers to get specially designed driver’s licenses. Each year, more and more of the workers show up at the Capitol pleading with legislators to give back an avenue to a license, which, they say, was taken away in 2008. Each year they seem to come closer, but somehow always fall just short of their goal.
“Transportation is almost a human rights issue,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-St. Paul, who has carried the driver’s license legislation in the past. “It’s an especially important issue in rural Minnesota.”
The reason: In the cities, there are transit systems that allow most workers to get from homes to work, to schools, to doctors, to the grocery store. In rural Minnesota, where immigrants (some documented, some not) get work on farms and in packing plants, the car remains the only method of transportation.
Chamber, ACLU among supporters
The issue is of such importance that groups as divergent as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Commercial and Food Workers Union and a number of religious organizations all support the issuance of licenses.
And yet undocumented immigrants remain a political football.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was among the first to use the undocumented immigrants as a way to score political points. In 2008, Pawlenty — who had his eyes on being the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate — issued a series of executive orders to show he was willing to get tough on undocumented immigrants. It was at that point, supporters of licenses for the undocumented say, that getting a driver’s license in Minnesota became virtually impossible.
When he became governor, Mark Dayton allowed many of Pawlenty’s orders to simply expire. But he’s always been of two minds on the driver’s license issue.
“He’s come a long way,” said Torres Ray, “but he has a strong personal conviction that those individuals who take the risks to come here to find work but don’t have proper documentation shouldn’t have the same entitlements that others have.”
In Legislature’s hands
That means the decision involving a large number of the approximately 90,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota has been left in the hands of the Legislature. Legislators need to change state law if undocumented workers are going to get licenses.
Last year, when the DFL held majorities in both the House and Senate, House DFLers got timid and didn’t move a bill. Paul Thissen, who was Speaker of the House at the time, and Kurt Daudt, who was minority leader and is now House Speaker, sent a letter to a leader of Pillsbury United Communities almost promising action on the bill this session.
“Given the short legislative session and the complicated nature of the policy change in question, however, we have run out of time to move the bill through the legislative process this year,” Thissen and Daudt wrote in 2014. “ … We understand the importance of this legislation for many immigrant families in Minnesota. Therefore, we commit to continuing conversations with advocates for the bill and legislators from both parties so that members of the public as well as members of the legislature have a better understanding of the impact this bill would have on so many members of the Latino community. …”
The thoughts behind the letter were very nice. But there hasn’t been much action since. The bill was never moved from the House Transportation Committee. In fact, no vote on the bill was even taken by the committee.
Over time, the issue has created all sorts of unintended consequences.
One is that many undocumented immigrants now drive without a license, meaning they drive without insurance. Various law enforcement leaders have testified that this has become a public safety issue.
Another consequence has been the growth of a political movement. Torres Ray says the “heroes” in all of this are the women in Mesa Latina. “They’ve made an extraordinary effort across all of Minnesota,” Ray said. “They’ve gone across the state telling people, ‘This process is open to all of us, come here, to St. Paul and talk to the lawmakers.’ There have been hundreds of people coming here.”
Throughout recent sessions, sign-toting activists have been a constant presence in the halls or the Capitol and state office building. Since Tuesday night, they have been staying in a shelter in front of the Capitol around the clock trying to get their message across to legislators and to the public at large.
“It was cold and the wind made it feel colder,” said Georgina Hernandez of Minneapolis, “but we think it’s worth it. It’s important that people hear us.”
Hernandez, and many like her, say there are two audiences they’re trying to reach. There are, of course, the legislators. But they also are trying to reach out to immigrants across the state, most of whom come from places where approaching government officials is either folly or dangerous.
Different from regular license
The driver’s license being sought would be different from those issued to most Minnesotans. It would be clearly labeled “for driving purposes only” and could not be used as a form of identification for purposes of voting. (Fear of voter fraud has been raised as a reason to prevent issuance of the licenses.)
And the licenses would not be a panacea. For example, Torres Ray said there is concern among some immigrant organizations that a distinct driving-only license would almost label some immigrants as “undocumented,” which would be an invitation to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to move in.
But the potential rewards are seen as greater than the risks. A license would mean passing a test, which would mean better understanding of the rules of the roads. A license would mean the ability to purchase insurance, which would not only benefit the undocumented, but also those involved in accidents with the uninsured motorists. That license remains just out of the reach of people who no longer are quite so invisible.