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Drivers licenses for immigrants passes first legislative hurdle

By Brad Sigal |
March 13, 2010
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Supporters of the drivers license bill outside the hearing at the state capitol.
Supporters of the drivers license bill outside the hearing at the state capitol. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Saint Paul, MN - On March 10, a bill that would allow immigrants to get drivers licenses in Minnesota passed its first hurdle in a key vote. By a vote of 8-5-1, the "drivers license for all" bill, HF1718, passed the House Transportation and Transit Policy and Oversight Committee.

According to Jovita from Mujeres en Liderazgo (Women in Leadership), the group leading the campaign, "This was a victory." More than 60 Latino immigrants and immigrant rights supporters packed the committee hearing room at the State Capitol to pressure the committee to support the bill. They held signs that read, "Drivers licenses for all!" Jovita noted, "Many people came to the hearing - families, mothers, some with kids - and we told the legislators about our experiences and about the importance of public safety. The community presence at the hearing was important." The large community presence and the testimony of immigrant women and supporters of the bill clearly made an impression on the committee members.

The drivers license bill would change Minnesota law to allow anyone who lives in the state to apply for a drivers license, regardless of immigration status. Currently in Minnesota, state residents have to prove their immigration status to get a drivers license; it is not considered enough to live, work and pay taxes in the state. This creates a huge hardship and constant fear among immigrant workers, who are mostly forced to drive to work due to inadequate public transportation, and then face increased chances of being stopped due to racial profiling. Without a drivers license, immigrants who get stopped while driving risk getting their car impounded and have to pay a huge fine to get it back. They also get a ticket and sometimes are taken to jail with the threat of deportation. Additionally, it is a public safety issue since drivers without a license cannot get car insurance.

Two Republicans on the committee were vocal in opposing the bill. Rep. Mary Holberg (R) raised the specter of identity theft and invoked the threat of terrorism and 911. Rep. Greg Davids (R) called on Patricia McCormack, the Director of Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services Division to testify whether her agency would support or oppose this bill. After repeated pressing, she said she would oppose the bill, because they can't be sure that passports from other countries have enough 'security features' to be legitimate identity documents. One person present at the hearing commented that, "Considering that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] accepts foreign passports as legitimate identity documents for people immigrating to the United States, it doesn't make sense that the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services Division would require a higher level of security than ICE." Opponents of the bill tried to associate the drivers license bill with unrelated issues. But the women from Mujeres en Liderazgo and attorney Bruce Nestor focused in their testimony on the daily difficulty in the lives of people who live in Minnesota without access to a drivers license, and on the public safety issue of unlicensed drivers not being allowed to get insurance.

This is the first time in about a decade that the immigrant community in Minnesota has pushed the legislature for the right to a drivers license, signaling an increasing confidence in the struggle for equal rights. After the committee voted to pass the bill, supporters met in the hallway to celebrate and plan their next moves as the bill moves on to a maze of committees in both the House and the Senate.