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Young Organizers Say ‘Drivers’ Licenses Ensure Dignity’

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Immigrant communities mobilized to return the Michigan legislature to Democratic control—but lawmakers stalled on restoring drivers’ licenses for undocumented residents. Two organizers call them to account.

Ordinary tasks and errands become life and livelihood- threatening risks when you don’t have a driver’s license. A driver’s license grants the ability to move freely – especially in spaces without public transportation – and that freedom is essential for the survival and success of all communities in Michigan. We, the co-authors, will share how drivers’ licenses play a critical part in our lives. Our stories exemplify the impact of a license, no matter who you are or where you live in the state. To ensure access to licenses for all qualified Michigan drivers, we are imploring the Michigan state legislature to pass the Drive SAFE bills, which would restore access to licenses to Michigan residents regardless of immigration status.

Before 2008, there was no legal presence requirement in Michigan for driver’s license applications, allowing all qualified applicants to apply for drivers’ licenses. Then in 2007, the Republican-dominated government in Lansing revoked that right. This resulted in 15 years of stress, fear, and family separations as Michigan residents caught driving without a license have been torn away from their families by law and immigration enforcement.

In 2019, the Drive Michigan Forward coalition was founded as a collaboration among organizations across the state to fight for drivers’ licenses for all, including We The People Michigan, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, and the ACLU of Michigan, among many others. Through the coalition’s organizing, the Drive SAFE bills were introduced in both 2019 and 2021, but the Republican majorities in both chambers refused to advance them to public hearings.

The coalition turned to a new strategy. Heading into the 2022 election, Spanish-speaking immigrant communities organized and turned out their U.S. citizen friends and family members to support three Democratic House candidates who would both flip historically Republican House seats and support drivers’ licenses. All three candidates won, securing a two-seat Democratic majority in the House and thus the first Democratic trifecta in 40 years.

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In the first year of this Democratic trifecta, organizing and advocacy work across the state and collaboration with state legislators led to the introduction of the Drive SAFE bill package in April. Although there is strong support from legislators and countless stakeholders across key industries in the state, Democratic leadership stalled the bills in their committees out of fear that anti-immigrant backlash would result in Democratic losses in the 2024 election. But here’s the thing: immigrant communities around the state mobilized to elect the current majority. They didn’t do that for fun: they did it to put leaders in office who would listen to our communities and pass the Drive SAFE bills to restore driver’s license access to qualified and capable Michigan drivers regardless of their immigration status.

One year later, that majority hasn’t delivered for us. And with the clock officially running out on this year’s session, it will likely be several months before these bills have another shot at passage. If they don’t get around to it, we won’t forget. And we won’t be able to mobilize our communities the way we did in 2022.

We thought we should share a little about the real and human stakes of this fight, which are so often missing when politicians tell us that our bills are too risky and that we just don’t understand. Believe us, we understand what these bills mean, and we will tell you what they mean to us and 100,000 other Michiganders.

A rural, northern Michigan experience

My name is Jade. I was raised in a rural community south of Traverse City. The summer after I turned 16, I landed one of the few jobs available in my village. I rode my bike 10 miles every day, rain or shine, so that I could help support my family. At the time, my grandmother was the only one with a driver’s license in our home, and she was diagnosed with COPD. As her ability to breathe deteriorated, she found herself unable to drive later that year.

Even as a teenager, I understood that securing my driver’s license could be the difference between life and death. The closest pharmacy to pick up my grandpa’s insulin was five miles away. The grocery store that sold my niece’s formula was 15 miles away. The hospital was 18 miles away.

Thankfully, my community loved me. Teachers, friends, and coworkers stepped in to give me rides and help me navigate my newfound adult responsibilities. I saved whatever money I could to put myself through driver’s education and buy a car. After an exhausting and heartbreaking year, I finally got my driver’s license. My grandmother passed away just days later.

I live in Lansing now while I attend university. For the first time in my life, I can walk everywhere I need to go, but my car still brings me a sense of security. The ability to drive allowed me to work, feed my family, attend college far from home, and create the life I dreamed of for myself.

Rural areas like mine understand the struggle of not having a driver’s license. What we don’t always get right is extending our empathy and assistance to marginalized people like the undocumented community. If my family was undocumented, my happy ending likely would have turned out very differently. Rural Michiganders need to understand that everyone who lives, works, or studies in our communities belongs here and deserves a dignified life regardless of their immigration status.

A view from metro Detroit

My name is Samantha Mena, and I was born and raised in the city of Macomb in an undocumented family. In 2008, undocumented Michiganders lost access to state drivers’ licenses. Like approximately 100,000 other Michigan residents, life still had to go on. For my mom, aunts, and uncles, this meant driving without a license to get to work, school activities, and church. For many, driving without a license holds the risk of getting a ticket, but for my family this holds the risk of a deportation sentence.

To reduce my family members’ risk, as a US citizen, I decided to start driver’s training once I turned 14 years and 9 months old. However, for me to start training, my mother had to show a valid driver’s license. Because current Michigan law denies undocumented people eligibility for a state driver’s license, she was forced to sign over her parental rights to a family friend who had legal presence, and therefore, a license. This was one of the hardest decisions my mom has had to make.

When I was 16, I came close to the harshest penalty of having an undocumented parent without access to a driver’s license. I witnessed my mom being pulled over and placed in the back of a sheriff’s car. At this moment, my mom’s life and my own were on the verge of being turned upside down because she was at risk of deportation for driving without a license. I went back and forth pleading with the officer to release my mom. After what felt like the longest conversation of my life, the sheriff approached me and told us that my mom was being released because she had been a law-abiding citizen for over 20 years, and he did not want to leave me without a mother. He made me promise that I would never let my mom drive again, and that I would do everything I could to take care of her.

I have upheld that second promise, but my mother continues to drive to get to her two jobs, which provide for our family and help me pay for college. Ensuring safety for my mother means advocating for the Drive SAFE legislation that would help all undocumented families feel safer in Michigan.

I am thankful to have been born into a family that, despite the obstacles presented in our lives, pushes harder every day to be able to make better lives for ourselves. My family is like many others: your neighbors, friends, coworkers, congregants, and classmates who want to live and grow and move freely in Michigan. The Drive SAFE bills currently in the Michigan legislature will restore access to licenses, making roads safer and our communities stronger. From Traverse City to Macomb, access to driver’s licenses helps us all breathe a little easier.

Featured image: Advocates from Drive Michigan Forward meet with State Rep. Amos O’Neal, who represents the 94th District. (Left to right) Jade Prange, Samantha Mena, Rep. O’Neal, We the People MI Policy Director Yvonne Navarrete, We the People Policy and Research Analyst Rachel Udabe.

Convergence and The Forge are co-publishing this article.


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