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Immigrants demand Minnesota drivers licenses on opening day of legislature

By Brad Sigal |
January 7, 2015
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MN protest demands legislation that allows immigrants right to drivers licenses
Protest at Minnesota Capitol demands legislation that allows immigrants the right to get drivers licenses (Photo by Kim DeFranco)

Saint Paul, MN - Chanting “What do we want? A license! When do we want it? Now!” more than 60 immigrant rights activists protested at the State Capitol on the opening day of the 2015 legislative session. They demanded that legislators pass a bill this year to give immigrants who live in Minnesota equal rights to get a drivers license like all other Minnesotans.

The protest was organized by the new One State One License Coalition, which includes organizations, unions and community members.

The group rallied outside on the Capitol steps, braving below-zero temperatures. Representative Karen Clark spoke to the protesters. Clark has championed the drivers license bill since 2009, and she thanked the protesters for being there and pledged to push to pass a bill this year for an unmarked drivers license. Other speakers included Maria Cisneros, one of the initiators of the Minnesota drivers license campaign in 2008; Luis Candela, who spoke about families that need to drive their children for medical appointments and emergencies; and Florencio Campos, a leader in the drivers license campaign.

When the outdoor rally finished, the protesters moved inside the capitol where they marched silently with fists raised, stopping in front of the House and Senate chambers.

Before the protest, members of the One State One License Coalition also talked to legislators about the need to pass a drivers license bill this year. Another group, Mesa Latina, also lobbied for drivers licenses on the opening day of the session.

The movement for drivers licenses in Minnesota is part of a nationwide movement demanding that states allow immigrants to get drivers licenses so they can drive without fear of harassment, arrest and deportation. While President Obama’s recent immigration executive action will help some people avoid deportation, those people are only protected temporarily and there are still an estimated 7 million people who won’t be covered at all. They will still be at risk of arrest and deportation every time they drive to work or to pick their children up from school. So struggles for drivers licenses at the state level are continuing. Recently there have been successes in several states including a huge victory in California, which just started issuing drivers licenses to immigrants this week after a years-long struggle there.

The question of whether to accept a ‘marked’ drivers license that’s significantly different than the license everyone else has emerged as a point of controversy in many states. Immigrant rights activists are having to struggle with resistant state legislators and federal Homeland Security officials. This controversy played out in California over the past year where activists struggled against proposals to make immigrants’ licenses a different color, and also struggled over whether to have a marking on the front or the back of the license which reads, "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes." During this controversy in California, State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) spoke out in the media against these markings saying, "covering the fronts of licenses with this information that Homeland Security is demanding would subject the holders to unnecessary discrimination and possible harassment.”

Other states debating drivers licenses for immigrants have also proposed substantially different licenses for immigrants, like in North Carolina where politicians proposed to add the words "No Lawful Status" in red on immigrants’ licenses, and in Alabama where officials proposed marking the licenses with "FN" for Foreign National.

The original Minnesota drivers license bill introduced in 2009 called for an unmarked drivers license, but the version of the bill that almost passed last year had been amended to be a drivers license that would be marked.

Immigrant rights activists have cautioned that police and other institutions could use such marked licenses to identify people’s immigration status and possibly use it against them. According to Marco Cruz Blanco, a member of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAC), “More than a driver's license to secure our roads, having an unmarked form of identification empowers individuals of diverse backgrounds to assert their cultural and ethnic identity against a system that too often racially profiles, resulting in unjust arrests or even deportation.”

In summing up the day, Florencio Campos of MIRAC said, “this protest helped kick off our work this year at the legislature. We let them know we are demanding an unmarked drivers license like any other Minnesota resident has. We’re working to make our communities and families more secure.”

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