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Immigrants in Minnesota fight for right to a drivers license

By Brad Sigal |
March 4, 2010
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Saint Paul, MN - The struggle for immigrants to be able to get drivers licenses in Minnesota is gaining steam. The group leading the struggle is Mujeres en Liderazgo (Women in Leadership), a grassroots group of Latina immigrant women. They want the Minnesota legislature to allow anyone who lives in Minnesota to get a drivers license, regardless of their immigration status.

A bill has been introduced in the state legislature, House File 1718, which will have its first hearing on March 10. Mujeres en Liderazgo has built a coalition to support the bill, along with various other immigrant rights activists and supporters. They are mobilizing to go the capitol to show the massive community support for the bill at the March 10 hearing.

According to Jovita, an organizer of Mujeres en Liderazgo and also a member of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition (MIRAc), "We are organizing for drivers licenses because it's an important need for our community. When we started, we did a survey in the community and the majority of people said this was a big need. So many people are stopped by the police while driving, and since they don't have a license they get 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. The majority of immigrants work far away so if they lose their car they can't get to work and also lose their job. People drive with the constant fear of losing their car, or of getting taking to jail and having their family separated."

Immigrant workers in the Twin Cities are largely forced to drive to work because many work evening and overnight shift jobs, when there are no buses or trains running. Many immigrants also work in suburbs that aren't accessible by public transit in jobs like construction, hotels, restaurants, office and retail cleaning, warehouses and small factories. Additionally, the number of immigrants living in greater Minnesota in smaller towns has skyrocketed. Many small towns have little or no public transit, forcing immigrants who live in greater Minnesota to drive to get to work too.

Racial profiling and discrimination makes the situation worse. Police frequently pull over Latino drivers because of racial profiling, not because they've done anything wrong. According to an ACLU report, a statewide racial profiling study commissioned by the Minnesota legislature "found significant evidence of racial profiling in traffic stops across the state. According to the study, African American, Latino and American Indian drivers were all stopped and searched by law enforcement at greater rates than white drivers, though contraband was found more frequently among white drivers."

States are not forced to restrict drivers licenses to only U.S. citizens by federal law; each state sets its own policies for issuing drivers licenses. A number of states only require proof that the individual lives in the state to get a drivers license. Immigrants who drive without a drivers license have not had the opportunity to take the drivers test and officially learn the rules of the road in the state. And without a drivers license they can't get car insurance either.

The House hearing for the drivers license bill on March 10 is the first step the drivers license bill takes toward becoming state law. It faces many more obstacles because powerful politicians in the state oppose any immigrant rights proposal. But Mujeres en Liderazgo is committed to continuing the struggle until victory. According to Jovita, "We will do it. We have to keep pressuring the legislators, keep struggling. There are examples that have passed here like the separation ordinance. And there is the struggle for the Dream Act too, and other fights for equality that have gone on for years. We will see change."

To find out more about the 'Drivers Licenses for All' campaign, see the MIRAc website: http://mirac1.wordpress.com

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