When she turns 16 over the next year, Michelle plans to apply for a driver’s license—so her parents, undocumented immigrants, will not be forced to drive terrified of being stopped as they transport her little brother to his critical medical appointments.
Michelle, who declined to give her last name to protect her family, told her story at a moving Three Kings Day ceremony that drew over 400 people and top city and state politicians to St. Rose of Lima Church in Fair Haven.
Two gifts announced at the church Sunday were not the spices of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar to baby Jesus, but two big pieces of contemporary news: St. Rose’s Father Jim Manship announced that Gov. Malloy has given his OK to a change in DMV regulations that will now give access to a legal driver’s license to “youth who have received deferred action status from the federal government.”
He was referring to DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, President Obama’s 2011 executive order that protects from deportation young people like Michelle—people under 30 who were brought to this country before they were 15, are in school or the military, and have been in continuous residence here.
That covers about 2,000 “Dreamers” in Connecticut, according to Manship, the vice-president of CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), which organized the event.
Mike Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice, confirmed later Sunday that the new policy is indeed being implemented.
The new policy is good news for Michelle’s family. Her younger brother, now 6, was paralyzed at birth. Because family members have been unable to obtain licenses, they have been fearful when taking her brother to the doctor.
The potentially even bigger news announced Sunday: CONECT and its allies in the state legislature used Three Kings Day to announce they are preparing to introduce a bill in the upcoming session. The aim is to allow undocumented immigrants in Connecticut to apply for and receive licenses, register their vehicles, and obtain insurance, all without reference to immigration status.
The CONECT press materials estimate 54,000 people statewide who must drive in order to work, take their children to life-sustaining medical appointments, or pick up children at school cannot legally obtain licenses.
“It is absolutely essential that hard working people are able to drive” responsibly, said State Senate Majority Leader Marty Looney of New Haven. He said the proposed legislation “recognizes the reality that people are driving and that it’s a matter of public safety and personal responsibility.”
Looney and the chairs of the Senate’s insurance and transportation committees, Joe Crisco and Andrew Maynard, respectively, showed up at the event to promote the bill. They described it as a win-win not only for the immigrants but for everyone else who uses the roads. They said it would mean fewer unlicensed and uninsured motorists; $2 million in state revenue from new registration fees; $20 million in new premiums for insurance companies. It would mean immigrants becoming more likely to stay at accident scenes and to cooperate with police, less likely to get profiled or harassed less based on “driving without a license.”
Telling Their Stories
Michelle described not only her parents’ terror-filled drives to doctors but the experiences of other families she knows in which “parents are paralyzed [with fear] driving to the doctor. People were afraid to pull over with a kid with epileptic seizure for fear of police.”
Sheila Rietano came to speak as a member St Jerome Catholic Church in Norwalk, one of 27 churches, synagogues, and mosques that that are part of CONECT. She and her husband were tail-ended by an immigrant driving his friend’s car, without license or insurance.
“Don’t report [the accident] or I’ll lose my job,” she remembered the plea of the man who hit her. He had a family and two kids to support, and he was terrified of the consequences, she said.
“Had he had a license, he’d have [had] training and insurance. They’re going to find a way to drive; they need to earn a living. We all benefit when they can [drive] with a legal license,” she said.
Describing himself as the grandson of a union-organizing 1892 immigrant from Russia, Alan Nudelman of Temple Israel in Westport read the statement of a young Guatemalan immigrant named Ruben. Ruben himself did not want to come to the podium because of his immigration status.
Nudelman described a young man working hard in the state to help support 10 brothers and sisters in Guatemala.
“I have to drive to work far from my house. Over the course of the last four years, I was stopped six times by the police, each time paying fines for driving with no license. Some of the stops were for very minor infractions, like not stopping completely at a stop sign, but most times, I was stopped for no reason at all,” Ruben had said in the statement.
Each fine was the equivalent of a week’s salary, altogether totaling $1,500. “I was so afraid of another ticket, I quit my job so I would have to travel to that town and found other work somewhere else. Now I have another job but I always drive in constant fear of being stopped and with no license to show the police,” he reported.
Michelle said she intends to apply for a license as soon as she can.
“It’s wonderful Connecticut is moving forward,” said Aaron Littman of Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, which is advising CONECT. He pointed out that immigrant rights groups are suing that states that have announced they are not honoring DACA for driver’s licenses, such as Arizona and Michigan.
Only New Mexico and Washington currently require all immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Since 2003, when New Mexico made the change, the rate of uninsured motorists, traffic fatalities, and alcohol-related crashes all plummeted, according to CONECT material.