Denied licenses, illegal immigrants plan march across Rhode Island

photo by Anita Baffoni, WPRO News
photo by Anita Baffoni, WPRO News

by MATT O’BRIEN, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Undocumented immigrants who aren’t allowed to drive are planning a long march across Rhode Island to protest political inaction on legislation that would have granted driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally.

A bill that produced emotionally charged debate in the State House this year is dead after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he won’t let it move to a vote before the session winds down in June.

“My opinion is the electorate across the state, the citizens of the state, are not in support of it,” the Cranston Democrat told reporters Wednesday. “So we’re going to respect what the majority of the citizens in the state want to do.”

The debate has exposed a divide between Rhode Island’s growing Latino population, heavily concentrated in Providence and a handful of nearby cities, and the suburban Democrats who hold most of the power in the Rhode Island General Assembly and represent districts that are predominantly white.

Democratic lawmakers from urban areas who co-sponsored the bill said they’ve been unable to persuade enough fellow Democrats to get behind it, especially in an election year when legislators are up for re-election and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is fueling anger over illegal immigration.

Rhode Island has about 35,000 unauthorized immigrants, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates. Without Social Security numbers or other ways to show legal residency, they’re unable to apply for driver’s licenses. The legislation would have created special licenses allowing them to drive if they paid a fee and met certain requirements, but the cards couldn’t be used as identification.

The lack of action has activists planning a large rally for late summer or early fall, inspired by farm labor leader Cesar Chavez’s pilgrimage across California’s Central Valley in the 1960s. That march spanned more than 300 miles of farm country, but Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, spans only about 60 miles between its farthest corners.

And that’s part of the point, said march organizer Mike Araujo of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice.

“The scale of Rhode Island makes it harder to excuse not having contact with each other,” he said. “There’s a lack of contact, a lack of actual integration. When that happens, people don’t see the person on the other side of the policy who’s living the policy choices made by the state.”

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has supported offering the licenses and has noted the other states, including neighboring Connecticut, to have passed similar laws. But she backed off on a 2014 campaign promise to grant them using an executive order because she said legislators should decide.

“The governor passed the buck on this, and the speaker has closed the door,” Araujo said. “We have to figure out a way to get our elected officials held accountable and to get the door open again.”

Companion legislation is not yet dead in the Senate but is running out of time. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Frank Ciccone, said he is making regular appeals to Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed to keep it going.

Ciccone represents an increasingly Latino district of Providence and North Providence where he said he’s talked to many neighbors who are forced to walk or ride bikes to work because they can’t get a license and bus routes are insufficient.

He said lawmakers’ resistance to helping immigrant families now will hurt them in the long term as the state’s population continues to change. But Ciccone, an Italian-American who expects to face a Latina challenger in September’s Democratic primary, said it’s not electoral politics motivating his advocacy for the bill.

“I’m doing what I think is right,” he said. “You’ve got people that are paying taxes that can’t drive to work. I think it’s totally unfair.”