PROVIDENCE, RI ― Last Thursday (5/5), I attended the Cinco de Mayo Driver’s License Rally at the Rhode Island State House lead by the Coalition for Safer Rhodes, a Providence based collective advocating for safe access to roads and driver’s licenses to all Rhode Islanders.
The rally was in support of Senate Bill 2333, which would allow the DMV to issue driver’s licenses to Rhode Island residents “unable to establish lawful presence in the US.” As of this year, 12 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license using their tax identification number rather than a social security number.
This was my second time at the Statehouse for this issue, the first being in March for another rally in support of the equivalent House version of the bill, HB 7610. Both times I left feeling extremely frustrated by how uninformed the committee legislators were on the very basics of immigration policy. A senator even remarked “I’m sorry to be so ignorant about immigration laws!” while asking why immigrants do not simply acquire green cards before entering the country.
This was particularly discouraging given the passionate testimonies given in support of the bill, particularly from those involved with English for Action, a Providence-based organization that provides English language classes to the immigrant community. Catarina Lorenzo, the Action Committee Co-Coordinator at English for Action gave an powerful testimony on why she supports the legislations: “It is the children that suffer. It is the trauma and negative psychological impact that kids of undocumented immigrants experience that really hurts me the most,” she said, adding “This bill won’t harm anyone. I am not a legal expert. I am not a lawyer. But I know this is not a bill that will hurt anyone in Rhode Island, but rather would promote safety.”
The hearing began with the testimonies from those speaking against the bill. Rather than listen to these long and hateful testimonies, the coalition and other supporters left the gallery to gather at the office of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to present a petition of over 700 signatures in support of the bill. The purpose of this petition, as stated by the coalition, was to show the overwhelming community support and to instate a democratic process rather than one determined by only few representatives. However, we were not given the opportunity to meet with Speaker Mattiello, and were promised only that our message would be passed along to him when he was available. Again, I was deeply frustrated to see that the voice of hundreds did not appear to be taken seriously by legislators.
Because of the nature of the bill and the communities in which it will take a crucial role, I thought it was necessary to think about my own role at the rally. I felt uncomfortable attending the rally as a Brown student and with how visible Brown students were allowing themselves to be at the rally. Brown students were often the ones leading cheers of “What do we want? Licences! When do we want them? Now!” I urge us to question the space Brown students take in actions like these. Most of us are simply visitors in this community attending a private, elite, predominantly white institution. We do not have the right to speak over Rhode Island immigrants who direly need this legislation passed. Providence is not our backyard and we are not better suited to speak on these issues than community members. There is plenty we can do without centering ourselves.
I am a Brown student who is neither undocumented or an immigrant and feel that testimonies from community members were the most appropriate way to relay the importance of this rally. Below is a brief interview with Lucia Mathamba and Gregorio Quixtae, two Rhode Island residents who attended last Thursday’s rally. This is a translation of an interview originally conducted in Spanish.
Alina Taveras Shelley: Why did you come to the rally today?
Lucia Mathamba: We came to support Bill 2333 so that we can get driver’s licenses in Rhode Island.
Gregorio Quixtae: Yes, we came to support the bill, hoping that they pass it.
ATS: Why is this bill important for the community?
LM: It would really help us because we would finally be able to drive safely, legally and peacefully.
GQ: We want to have transportation for ourselves. That’s what we need the most. Transportation to work. To be able to drive with confidence and feel safer at our jobs.
ATS: How did you find out about today’s rally? Did you come with an organization?
LM: I found out on the Facebook page Providence en Español. I’ve been coming to support the bill since the first time the group came to the State House.
GQ: I’m involved with the organization English For Action and I receive information about all the events they have, whether it’s about licenses or something else.
ATS: Do you feel like the government and the state representatives have treated you with respect? Do you feel like they have listened to your demands?
LM: Yeah, we see that we have more support in the senate and in the congress now. You can see how they’re supporting us more, you know?
GQ: Yeah, I think that they have listened. They have their opinion, too. They are the ones that get to make the laws. I think that yes, they’ve listened and that’s very meaningful. But they have not acted, and that is what we are waiting for. We are waiting for them to vote in favor of this bill. On the other hand, they could also vote against it. Nothing is for sure. It’s a bill, so you have to study them as legislators and politicians to know what their opinion is. We make our voice heard, and in return they listen. But I think that, yeah, they have responded to us.
ATS: How many times have you come to the State House for these events?
LM: This is the second time I’ve come.
GQ: I’ve come many times, all to support this cause. I don’t know when the last time is going to be.
ATS: Do you have anything else to add about the event or the cause?
LM: Most of all, we pray to God that He enlightens all the legislators and those who have the power to change the law. We pray that He can reach them so that this bill can finally pass.
GQ: We ask that the solidarity in this community continues so that we can always be united. We pray that the congress votes in favor of this legislation, which is all we really want, so that that the bill passes. That’s it.
Despite overwhelming community support, the Senate committee recommended the measure be held for further study and declined to vote on the bill until June. This was the same decision made by the House committee this past March regarding their version of the bill, HB7610.
Sign the Coalition for Safer Rhode’s petition here to support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in RI and ask that Speaker Mattiello, Representative Keable, and Members of the House Judiciary Committee recommend the passage of House Bill 7610 immediately.
To learn more about this issue, please visit English for Action and the Coalition for Safer Rhodes. To get involved with other Brown students advocating for immigrant rights, check out the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition.