On March 25, the Rhode Island State House rattled. The halls, lined with portraits of the state’s sternest founding fathers, echoed with a resounding call.
¡Licencias para todos!
(Licenses for all!)
¡Ahora es tiempo!
(Now is the time!)
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!
(The people united will never be defeated!)
¿Qué queremos? ¡Licencias! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!
(What do we want? Licenses! When do we want them?
¡Sí se puede!
(Yes we can!)
They translate to a demand for dignity. Predominantly Latinx, established community organizers were joined by students, young workers, and even a couple of kids who scampered through the halls alternating between playing tag and holding their crayoned signs high. Legislators slammed their doors as voices rang out. After speaker of the house Nicholas Mattielo’s secretary sealed off the main entrance to his office, protestors laughed as they watched him exit surreptitiously through a side door. Unfazed by the subtle dismissal, they set their sights higher, on Governor Raimondo, and with renewed resolve marched to her third floor office door. The rally, organized by Comité en Acción, a Providence based community group dedicated to advancing immigrant rights and fighting racism, was one of four held at the state house in March alone. Activists implored legislators to pass Bill H-7610, a proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to attain legal driving privileges.
Rodrigo Pimentel—the Secretary of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and the Communications Director of the Young Democrats of Rhode Island—was one of more than 50 people marching that afternoon. The child of immigrants and a Deferred Action recipient, they testified for the passage of the bill and are still in the process of pressuring legislators. Pimentel gets to the heart of the issue quickly: “A license gives one a sense of being, and of humanity. It allows a person to be fully integrated in their community. Their life is no longer defined by an erratic bus schedule.”
It isn’t the first time a bill of this kind has come before the House Judiciary Committee. The original iteration was presented in 2006. Every time, it has failed.
In this political environment, legislators in favor of the bill have had to make some compromises, shifting the content to make it more appealing to its opponents. Senator Frank A. Ciccone, the Democratic representative for the predominantly Hispanic District 7 and a sponsor of the bill, talks about it as an assuredly pragmatic politician. Even over the phone, it’s clear he also maintains a hint of restrained, institutional optimism: “We’ve changed the wording to make it more palatable.”
When he says more palatable, what he means is more restrictive. The new iteration of the bill includes more stringent clauses than any of its predecessors. It mandates that eligibility be limited only to those who have begun the application for U.S. citizenship. There is a $595 fee to even file the now necessary naturalization application, making the stipulation prohibitively expensive for many. Ciccone laments, “my opponents say they’re illegal, we shouldn’t give them anything.” He claims that “they are hard working taxpayers, they’re here, they’re driving, they should have the ability to get insurance.” This line about hard working taxpayers is a classic in the immigration debate, a moralizing capitalist value judgment that posits humans as only worthy if they are active cogs within the market economy.
Nationally, 12 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) and Washington, DC have afforded driving privileges in the form of state-sanctioned identification cards to undocumented immigrants. It is not an unprecedented action, and one that Rhode Island would do well to follow. Pimentel points out, though, that Rhode Island’s bill already has extremely strict parameters of eligibility, much more stringent than neighboring Connecticut’s requirements. In addition to being engaged in the citizenship application process, applicants must be able to prove they have filed income taxes for at least the past two years. Pimentel goes on to say, “Legislators have suggested that we should do public opinion polling on this issue, which I find absolutely outrageous. We should not have to poll basic human decency.”
Providence’s immigrant rights groups mobilized in unison to push for passage of the bill. Comité en Acción, Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, and the Olneyville Neighborhood Association presented a strong united front, but their efforts were not uncontested. Rhode Islanders for Immigrant Law Enforcement is not only dedicated to the defeat of the bill, but advocates for the passage of an alternative, more dehumanizing one. H-7860, or the “Public Safety and Protection Act,” seeks to erase Rhode Island’s status as a sanctuary state—one that does not engage intimately and intensely with federal immigration authorities—and increase state cooperation with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. This also begs the question of what public the state is seeking to protect.
In an interview with Terry Gorman, the president of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, he declared he is “dead set against licenses for illegal aliens, have been since 2006.” A small business owner from Cumberland, Rhode Island, he and his cohort are dedicated to ensuring that immigrants don’t “come to this country and live here and work here and basically take advantage.” Pimentel’s father defies this tired imagining of the freeloading immigrant.Pimentel shares, “My dad, as a self-employed mason and contractor, is a taxpayer, business owner, but does not have a license—all because he overstayed his visa almost two decades ago.” He’s a small business owner just like Gordan, but without any of the same privileges.
Without citizenship status, immigrants are already grossly limited in what services they have access to, driver’s licenses just being one. Subsidized housing applications request a social security number, as do driver’s license applications; and undocumented people who either intentionally or accidentally misrepresent their status risk deportation. Notably, a driver’s privilege card would allow those without a social security number to access insurance. This would make their presence on the roadways legal, reducing the likelihood that Customs Enforcement (ICE) would become involved if they were to be stopped by the police.
Unfortunately, the fear and vitriol that drives Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement to block immigrants from securing driving privileges does not exist in a vacuum. They have the support of Representative Doreen Costa, the co-chair of the committee hearing the bill. She calls the Public Safety and Protection Act, which would also seek to bar Gina Raimondo from issuing an executive order allowing driving privileges, a good bill. Her colleague Representative Robert Nardolillo is not only close with Gorman, but goes so far as to employ the rhetoric of the Federation for American Immigration Reform—a group connected to the Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement and white supremacists—in his arguments against H-7610.
While Bill H-7610 is no panacea, it is on the table. It would not radically overhaul an immigration system that perpetuates the notion that humans only have value, and thus only deserve rights, when they are providing labor. But working within the auspices of the current political system, it is a start. The bill has not failed yet. It has been held for further study. Although beset by a legislative tactic meant to derail momentum, this is not the end for Bill H-7610. Comité en Acción is imploring community members to flood the office of Speaker Mattielo with phone calls voicing support for the bill and to provide signatures demanding the legislation be recommended for passage.
EMMA PHILLIPS B’17 called Speaker Mattielo’s office at (401) 222-2466 and signed the MoveOn.org petition by searching Pass Bill H-7610