A simple trip in the car to the Market Basket for many undocumented residents of Chelsea could equal a catastrophic separation from their children and families – and one statewide organization has tirelessly spent the last year trying to revive the bill in the State Legislature to let undocumented residents qualify for driver’s licenses.
Volunteer organizer Amelia Gonzalez Pinal, a resident of Chelsea, said Cosecha began activism with several circles around the state one year ago on Nov. 3 to bring the issue to the forefront once again. The campaign is called Manejando Sin Miedo, or Driving without Fear, and the group has done everything from traditional lobbying to spending a weekend camped out on the State House Lawn.
“We realized nobody has really engaged with the community,” she said this week during an interview at Bella Isla in Cary Square. “There has been a lot of good work done. This is one of the big issues that those in our organization all struggle with…Our argument is the roads would be safe and our communities would be safer. Many other states have passed it. It won’t be the first time for us. There is precedence…This issue has been hanging around the State House for 15 years. Unfortunately, it has been very long, but the issues and the struggles of those in the community haven’t changed.”
Consecha has established strong circles in Lawrence and Lowell and Worcester, but they have a very strong network in East Boston – which encompasses Chelsea.
One of the challenges for undocumented residents who drive is that they can easily be pulled over, and without a license, that often can lead to deportation. Pinal said some men from the organization in Lawrence were working construction in New Hampshire. There was no public transit, so they had to drive. The driver had not license, and got pulled over. Two of his co-workers were undocumented, and the situation led to them being detained by the federal government.
Other struggles are economic, whereby undocumented residents cannot get a license and are then confined to jobs – sometimes paying below their skill level – that are accessible by public transit.
“In Boston, folks have a good option in public transit, but not all jobs are accessible by transit,” she said. “Many of them do not have the ability to go beyond the community. It’s hard for them to go anywhere. If they’re in Everett or Malden or Chelsea, there is a bus, but it isn’t always reliable. That makes it hard to get to work outside the community.”
One of the key arguments against the bill is many feel there is no way to definitively tell if a person’s documents are legitimate. Because such a license would have to be procured through using foreign country birth certificates, there are doubts about the reliability of those documents. Many say it could lead to identity fraud and other criminal actions too.
Advocates say that birth certificates and passports can be verified through consulates, such as the El Salvadoran or Honduran consulates who have frequently visited Chelsea for document verification and renewal.
Pinal said there is a bill in the House Transportation Committee that is being held there. They are currently calling for it to be released for a vote on the House floor. There, they believe they have the votes to get it passed.
Already, Chelsea State Rep. Dan Ryan, who serves on the Transportation Committee, is an ally in the fight.
“I fully support and have co-sponsored bills that would extend access to driver’s licenses to all of our neighbors who have the ability to drive, regardless of their immigration status,” he said. “I was asked about this legislation when I first ran, my gut feeling then was that driver’s licenses are a transportation issue not an immigration issue. It wasn’t until I got to the State House that I realized that the bill is in the Transportation Committee; and for good reason. Unfortunately, the vitriol surrounding immigration nationally has stood in the way of passing common sense, revenue generating, public safety legislation. My hope is we get this done before this term expires.”
And the deadline for the term is a real big part of the activism now going on, Pinal said. They have until July to get the bill passed, or they have to start over again. In the Senate, President Karen Spilka has recently come out in favor of the plan, but Gov. Charlie Baker has been adamantly against it for some time.
“If it goes past July, then we have to start over again and no one wants that,” she said. “It will just lead to more fear. There have been three previous attempts and we don’t want to have to have four. I have no doubt if we get this to the floor for a vote, we’ll have a lot of support in the House and Senate. We hope there could either be an override vote of the governor, or he could change his mind. We hope we can get to either of those points.”
The bill being advocated is House Bill 3012, she said.