William De Leon at Monday night's vigil with his son. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

It was during a random afternoon about a year ago that William De León, a Flanders resident, first felt hope about an issue that had been on his mind for a long time.

That day, organizers at the Center for Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment (CASA) in Riverhead had called in a meeting to talk about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. A bill had been recently introduced in the State Assembly, and local immigrant advocates wanted to inform the community about that proposal and the campaign around it, Rural Migrant Ministry outreach coordinator Noemi Sanchez explained.

“We called that meeting because we saw the necessity of the people,” Sanchez said. “Through my work at RMM I saw how all types of workers suffered because of this issue, sometimes they had been defrauded of thousand of dollars for not being able to obtain their own insurance, other times mothers had been unable to take their kids to the doctor, and all were afraid.”

It was a fear and struggle that for the Latino community on Long Island, was palpable.

Spring was almost over and with it, a wave of ICE detentions and deportations that had greatly impacted the community — a nightmare, many said, that had sometimes started after a routine traffic stop.

During those tense months, people stopped going to work, parents hesitated before sending their kids to school, every semi-official looking vehicle was suspect, and family separations, many on the East End, made the headlines weekly.

Upon hearing of the topic of the meeting, De León first thought that it all sounded like another pipe dream, but decided to go anyway — after all, CASA had proven to be a welcoming space, and he didn’t lose anything by going.

Father Gerardo Romo, coordinator of the Episcopal Church North Fork Hispanic Ministry prays during the vigil Monday night. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

But, after the meeting ended, and the goodbyes had been said, what he heard and saw that day, the emotion he felt in that room, was life-altering, he said.

He not only found a common purpose with many others who felt the desperate need to have access to a driver’s license — and therefore access to a better quality of life — but also was amazed to learn that it was a proposal supported by different people of many creeds and backgrounds, all around the state, he said.

“That day I felt so emotionally touched,” De León said. “Since then I haven’t missed a meeting about the [Green Light NY] campaign.”

De León first immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 19 years ago. He is a documented immigrant, with a valid New York driver’s license, and has been a carpenter for over a decade. But, although today he has a legal status, he said that it wasn’t always the case. He had to drive for a number of years without a driver’s license, and with that, came the risks, and the constant dismay and awareness that an undefinable ‘something’ could happen.

“The fear I felt every day is indescribable,” he said. “I had to get to work, just go and come back, but every morning and every afternoon I prayed that I would not be stopped, that my car was working properly and that the cops didn’t focus on my face too much.”

And if he had been stopped, he said, a ticket for being an unlicensed operator could be as much as $400, something he said “hurts to pay” since at that time, it was almost one week’s wages. There are families he knew that were drowning in debt trying to pay those tickets, and the lawyers that came with them, he said.

Fortunately for De León, he was able to find a path to get documented, but not every immigrant’s situation was as clear-cut as his, he said. Each case is unique, and there are many immigrants for whom there simply is no path within the current immigration system.

“When you have to choose between poverty, violence and hunger, and the chance to have a better life for you and your family, you risk many things,” he said.

For him, though, the fight is not over. He has documents, but his wife is currently processing her immigration papers. That period in limbo is putting a real stress on his wife — who is pregnant — and on him, because they are afraid every time she has to drive their kids to school, thinking they can stop her.

“I leave for work every day worried for her and the kids,” De León said. “And I think, God protect them.”

Almost a year has passed since that spring afternoon when De León learned of the Green Light campaign.

Thanks to the work of local immigrant advocates, the months since then were filled with periodical updates on the status of the bill, listening to the plight and testimonies of other immigrants across the upstate region and in the city through monthly conference calls — talking to community organizers, faith leaders and others, spreading the word, always repeating the message: “Don’t be afraid, let’s unite, we can do it, this is a great country, a country of immigrants.”

Little by little, a movement decades in the making gained traction, and what started as a few meetings of a dozen people, grew into the hundreds, and then the thousands, on Long Island.

In Riverhead alone, when there was a march organized to support the driver’s license access bill, over 300 people showed up in the middle of a random Tuesday in March, even though it had been announced only a few days before.

‘No longer a dream’

And then, just a few short months after the march in Riverhead, almost to the day, the Assembly voted to pass the bill last Wednesday — and with it, a real sense that something once a pipe dream, could after 18 years again become the law of the land in New York.

Sanchez said that after the Assembly vote, however, community organizers realized that the hardest was yet to come.

“We were all happy, but cautious. We knew that it came down to the power of the people now, not the organizations, and we decided to organize a local vigil where people could express what they were feeling and put it into God’s hands: hope, fear, anxiety, and all in between,” she said.

But the vigil, scheduled for Monday to pray for the passage of the Green Light bill in the State Senate, turned into a live listening session when the bill was unexpectedly brought to the floor for a debate and vote.

About 60 local residents, young and old, attended the vigil, quietly listening to senators from all over the state debate their fates.

At one point in the debate, when Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican from Saratoga County, asked bill sponsor Sen. Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) why did immigrants “choose” to remain undocumented, the vigil attendees were incredulous and upset, expressing frustration at the uninformed question, which, they said, betrayed the lack of knowledge regarding the current immigration laws.

“Nobody wants to be undocumented!,” Y.M., a Riverhead resident said. “It’s not a choice.”

Other claims made by opposers of the bill during the debate, like undocumented immigrants purposely registering to vote illegally, drew similar reactions.

“I’m here today and I support this bill because I know many good people who are my neighbors, my friends, who because of the way life works haven’t had access to get their papers, but who I know, and they only want the best for their families and to go to work safely,” De León said. “There are a lot of things Republican senators said in the debate that are simply not true, and I wish they understood what immigrants go through.”

Vince Taldone

Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association president Vince Taldone, who was present Monday at the vigil, agreed.

“There was a senator [at the debate] talking about how ‘you let these people into your homes, they take care of your children, you’re perfectly comfortable,’ and then you say, ‘I don’t want them to have a license because I’m afraid of them.’ I mean, nothing adds up,” Taldone said.

People were also visibly upset upon learning of the vote of the six Long Island Democratic Senators, who all voted no. They were especially angered with Sen. Monica Martinez, who was brought to the U.S. from El Salvador as a young child and represents several immigrant-dense areas like Brentwood and Patchogue.

After a long and tense two hours, the vigil — which until then had everything from moments of prayer, hymn singing, confusion, happiness, frustration, technical difficulties, food munching, Facebook Live videos and more praying — finally turned into a celebration when the last vote was cast, and the answer to the question of whether the bill was approved was a resounding yes.

Attendees were in tears, chanting “Yes we can” — jumping, hugging and giving emotional speeches.

De Leon and his family joined them.

“People’s lives are going to change for the better when this is a real law,” a tearful De León said as he embraced his crying wife and wide-eyed children. “It was worth it. God, it was worth it.”

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria