Time for Unity on Driver’s Licenses for Immigrants
Since the election of our new Governor momentum has been building in the activist community for Driver’s Licenses for undocumented immigrants. Several groups, including the Latino Action Network, have launched campaigns or increased our efforts to get this legislation passed. I was fortunate to meet with several Driver’s License activists at our Annual Latino Action Network Legislative Conference in January and found that we all share a common goal: get Driver’s Licenses legislation passed as soon as posible.
It is important to note that while we all share the same goal, our tactics differ from organization to organization. In general it is a good thing to have different groups approaching an issue from various directions. That is, unless some of those approaches become counterproductive to the end goal.
Personal Attacks Against Our Allies
Some activists have taken to launching personal attacks against our allies in the legislature who have demonstrated their commitment to achieving driver’s licenses for immigrants. They have demonstrated this commitment by virtue of their sponsorship of the legislation itself. However, they are now being targeted and harassed by some activists who have launched large scale attacks against them on social media. This approach is misguided and counterproductive.
It is misguided because it shows either a lack of understanding of the legislative process or a deliberate attempt to derail this important legislation. It is counterproductive because too much time is being wasted debating whether the people who are championing this law in the legislature are actually in support if it. This time could be better spent talking to legislators who need to be persuaded to support the bill.
Attacks Against Legislative Sponsors is Misguided
Those that are attacking the legislative sponsors of the Driver’s Licenses bills claim that the sponsors are obstructing the same bill because (a) multiple bills were introduced by different legislators and (b) this law is not getting “fast-tracked” like other bills have been and (c) they do not support the bill because they do not include mention of this particular bill in all of their public statements.
Multiple Bills: It is not unusual for multiple bills addressing the same issue to be introduced in the legislature. In fact, in 2013 several bills were introduced that dealt with In-State Tuition and Financial Aid for DREAMers. Some bills only dealt with In-State Tuition, other bills only dealt with Financial Aid, and yet other bills included both components. For most of the time leading up to the passage of the legislation, most activists were only focusing on the In-State Tuition component. It was only toward the end that we all coalesced around the idea of pushing for the bills that included both In-State Tuition AND Financial Aid. Our thinking back in 2013 was that even if Governor Christie vetoed the Financial Aid piece, which he did, we would still get the In-State Tuition portion, which we did. The added bonus was that we already had legislators on the record for having supported and voted in favor of Financial Aid for DREAMers and we could go back to those same legislators in the future when we had a Governor who would sign it into law. In that case, having multiple bills to chose from was helpful to our cause.
Fast-Tracking: For the reasons mentioned above, fast-tracking the Financial Aid bill was posible. When the Financial Aid bill was reintroduced in the current legislature, we already knew who the majority of supporters of the bill were by looking at the voting history of the bill back in 2013. We knew who had voted for the bill and those same legislators were very likely to vote for it again this time around. We were then able to focus our attention on those legislators who came to office after 2013 and therefore did not participate in the original vote.
We also were able to expand our advocacy beyond Democrats and reached out to Republican legislators as well. This resulted in passage of the Financial Aid legislation with bi-partisan support.
Driver’s Licenses is in a different situation because there has never been a previous vote on this legislation. We, as activists, still have a lot of work to do to garner the support of a majority of lawmakers in both houses of the state legislature.
Public Statements in Support of Bill: The best testament a legislature could show of their support of a bill is to become a sponsor of that bill. The legislators that are currently being attacked are the actual PRIME SPONSORS of the bill to provide Driver’s Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants. Their name is on the top of the bill. They have taken ownership of this issue and will face the consequences (good and bad) of their decision to champion this bill in the legislature. When this legislation passes, and I firmly believe that it will, the Prime sponsors of this bill will reap the reward of praise from the immigrant community that will benefit from it and they will also reap the scorn of the anti-immigrant forces that will vilify them for doing anything that aids immigrant families. They have gone beyond issuing a simple statement in support of the bill, they have tied themselves to the bill and will be forever linked to its fate.
Attacking Our Allies is Counterproductive
In the current anti-immigrant climate being exacerbated by President Trump it is hard enough to win over support for this bill from legislators that do not represent large immigrant populations. Our job becomes even more difficult when the champions of this legislation are being attacked by community activists. Our allies in the legislature are doing their part by (a) putting their names on this legislation as Prime Sponsors (b) being public advocates of this legislation (c) fighting for this legislation within their legislative caucus (c) opening line of communication for activists with key decision makers within state government so that important questions about implementation can be addressed.
The work that these champions are doing from the inside does not absolve us, the community activists and advocates, from doing our jobs. We still have to do the hard work of reaching out to legislators throughout the state to get them to commit to supporting and voting in favor of this bill. We must reach out to Democrats and Republicans as we cannot afford to leave any stone unturned since this vote might be close and even one Republican vote, like we got with S-699, could help put this bill over the top.
These unwarranted attacks on the legislative champions of this bill also works to diminish their reputations in the communities they serve and on the floor of the legislature. The attacks give the impression that these legislators do not enjoy the support of their constituents. Nothing can be further from the truth. We would not have accomplished the passage of In-State Tuition and Financial Aid for Undocumented Students without the leadership of the members of the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, especially our three Latina State Senators: Teressa Ruiz, Nellie Pou and Nilsa Cruz-Perez.
I am confident that with their continued leadership and a lot of hard work on our part we will be victorious in passing legislation that will provide Driver’s Licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Now is not the time to turn on each other. Now is the time to unite and fight side by side for what we all believe to be the right thing.
We must put our egos aside and follow our moral compasses that tell us to do what is right for our community. That same moral compass tells us that we should do this work in the spirit of love for the people we serve and for the people we struggle side by side with. So, it is in this spirit that I implore all community activists and legislators to work together because only in unity will we truly be victorious.
Christian Estevez, President
Latino Action Network