Residents and community advocates marched down Main Street Tuesday afternoon in support of state legislation that would make standard driver’s licenses available for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status.
The group of about 200 people from across Suffolk County walked about a mile and a half from the headquarters of CASA Rural Migrant Ministry’s Long Island rural worker education center on Roanoke Avenue to the Department of Motor Vehicles office on Route 58.
Marchers of all ages and ethnicities rallied in support of the bills — also known as the Green Light NY bill, currently pending in the state legislature — by chanting along the route in Spanish and English phrases like “What do we want? Licenses for all!” and “Why do we want it? To drive without fear!” Cars and passersby showed their support by honking, raising their hands and chanting along with the marchers. Three counter-protesters stood outside an East Main Street auto repair shop, one holding a large blue “Trump 2020” flag, shouting “Build the wall!” as the marchers passed by.
“Today showed a really strong sense of community,” Long Island Jobs with Justice executive director Anita Halasz said.
Halasz and other advocates say that allowing access to standard driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants would allow them to drive safely and have identification. But the license would not allow holders to register to vote, which Halasz called a “complete misconception.” She said the issue needs to be reframed from the perspective of public safety, which she added, is “only beneficial for all.”
A recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a non profit think tank, estimated that the state would benefit economically in the millions of dollars from registering vehicles and other revenue sources, public safety would increase when people passed a road test, and more people would be able to buy insurance, which in turn would minimally decrease premiums for current drivers.
Currently, there are 12 states plus the District of Columbia that have enacted legislation similar to the “Green Light” bills currently pending in Albany. New York’s Green Light bill, officially named the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, would allow the DMV to issue driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers who pass the standard written and road tests, regardless of immigration status. (See prior story.)
In fact, undocumented immigrants were able to obtain driver’s licenses prior to 2003, when a post-Sept. 11 law took effect restricting access to licenses to people who held social security cards.
Advocates argue that restoring access would help police and law enforcement, decrease fraud and the exploitation of immigrants, help identify people and strengthen community relations.
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller agrees.
“Driver’s licenses are good for all people, period,” Hegermiller said in an interview Monday. “So as long as its just for driving, we fully support it.”
Eva June Roberts-Vasquez, a Riverhead resident who took time off from work to support the march, said that having everybody on the road licensed and insured “is a no brainer.”
“The fact that we had this years ago and then it was taken away, doesn’t make any sense and it was not the right thing to do,” Roberts-Vasquez said.
G. Martinez, a Riverhead resident of 10 years, is an undocumented immigrant who works at a vegetable farm on the North Fork, where public transportation is not an option for him.
Martinez, who marched Tuesday and does not own a car, said that having a driver’s license would be “life-changing” for him. Currently Martinez pays $45 every day for a ride to his work, almost half his daily earnings for two 10-minute trips a day. Sometimes, he said, he has to choose between groceries and saving money for rides.
“Having a license would allow me to go to work safely, buy food, and in general, live without fear,” he said.
The march was coordinated by a group of local organizations and allies including SEPA Mujer, Rural Migrant Ministry, NYCLU, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Immigrant Students Alliance, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, the Episcopal Church North Fork Hispanic Ministry and the North Fork Unity Action Committee.
Another march in Albany also took place Tuesday, where hundreds—including several residents from Riverhead — rallied outside the Capitol urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature to approve the bills.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Maria Piedrabuena