RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — “What do we want? Driver’s licenses. Why do we want them? To drive without fear!” some 170 people chanted in English and Spanish as they marched through this town of 14,000 March 12.
The marchers were overwhelmingly immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, including construction workers, landscapers, cooks, house painters and workers from area fruit and vegetable farms, grape vineyards and nurseries.
They are demanding the New York legislature pass a law to allow immigrants without documents the government recognizes to get driver’s licenses. The action was organized by a coalition that includes SEPA Mujer, Rural and Migrant Ministry and other church, immigrant rights and civil liberties groups.
A similar demonstration of nearly 1,000 took place in Albany the same day. There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in the state.
This correspondent, Socialist Workers Party candidate for New York City Public Advocate, joined in, backing the fight for driver’s licenses and calling for amnesty for all undocumented workers in the U.S.
This is not a small question for working people, especially in small towns and rural areas where there is little public transportation. All workers who don’t have licenses, if stopped by police, face a fine of up to $300, impoundment of their car and even jail time, as well as steep towing and “storage fees.” Immigrant workers face an added risk — possible deportation.
“A friend picks me up to go to work every day,” one farmworker who didn’t want to give her name, told the Militant. “To get groceries I have to take a taxi and that can cost $60.”
Diana, a stay-at-home mom who asked that we only use her first name, said the first time her husband was stopped by cops was when she was in the hospital during the birth of one of her children. “Between the fines and the charge for getting the car out of impoundment it was over $800,” she said. Diana was born in the United States, but her husband was born in Ecuador. They have been married more than a decade and their children were born here.
After her husband was stopped a second time, she quit her job. “I drive my husband to work. Then I take the kids to school. Then later in the day I pick him up from work and the kids from school,” she said. “If he could get a license I could go back to work. It would make a big difference in our lives.”
A bill before the state legislature would create a special license — which wouldn’t be legal for anything but driving — that immigrants without a social security number could get. It has the backing of dozens of state assemblymen and senators. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that if the bill passes he will sign it, but has done nothing to promote it.
Since at least 2017 the New York State Farm Bureau, which organizes many capitalist farmers, has backed similar legislation. These farmers are worried about a shortage of farm labor at the wages they pay.
Several municipal governments and officials around the state are backing the measure, including the New York City Council, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller. Democratic Party presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has opposed giving immigrants driver’s licenses for most of her political career, now backs this bill.
But support is far from universal. A bipartisan committee of the Oswego County legislature voted in January to oppose the measure. “New York State presently suspends or revokes driver’s licenses for various illegal acts, including nonpayment of child support, delinquent taxes and refusal to submit to a breath test, yet this act would reward illegal entry into the United States with a driver’s license,” the committee resolution said.
In interests of working class
Many U.S.-born workers would welcome granting licenses to undocumented workers. Winning this would widen the door to eliminating other anti-working-class restrictions on licenses, like those mentioned in the Oswego resolution.
And it would break down barriers between native-born and immigrant workers and help unify the working class in fighting attacks from the bosses and their government.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
Victor Cortez, a farmworker near Rochester who has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, told the protest in Albany that he had to wait two days to get someone to take him to the doctor after he was injured on the job because he didn’t have a license.
“We’re not asking for favors,” he told the crowd. “We are just asking for a bit of what we give to this state.”