PRESS STATEMENT: Hundreds of Immigrants Pack Safe Driving Bill Hearing

Six-hour hearing ends with stream of spontaneous testimonies in favor of bill that would ensure all Massachusetts drivers are tested, licensed and insured

edited_DSC_1051March 6, 2014 BOSTON —  Yesterday over 500 immigrants and supporters "took over" the State House, as one admiring Representative put it, to advocate for passage of the Safe Driving Bill, which would allow all qualified Massachusetts residents to apply for a driver's license regardless of one's immigration status. In a long and impassioned public hearing on the bill, supporters seemed to win  over the admiration of the Joint Transportation Committee co-chair, Representative William Strauss, who closed the hearing by commending participants on their dedication and civility.

Circumstances could certainly have tested that civility in the crowded hearing room, much of it packed like the Red Line at rush hour. Early in the hearing, it was announced that anyone who audibly reacted to the testimony would be instantly ejected, and the hearing room cleared if reactions continued.

Even without words, however, supporters proved the point they'd come to make: namely, a lack of immigration status does not make one "illegal," nor any less worthy of basic civil respect. Many in the crowd gave up a day's pay to attend the hearing. Some came with churches or immigrant organizations; others, by themselves when they heard reports on local Brazilian radio. A couple dozen migrant laborers traveled for hours from the Berkshires. One church group of twenty followed their pastor out of the room so those testifying on other bills could enter, and then waited in the hall for hours in the hope of returning. Another group of at least two hundred went off to visit their individual legislators' offices. Well over two hundred more stood patiently for three hours waiting for the bill to be heard, crammed inside the room or gathered tightly in the corridor outside.

The crowd's patience was matched by its politeness.Though many attendees wore slogans printed on t-shirts, buttons and stickers, the crowd outside quickly hushed whenever addressed by team leaders or security personnel. When State Police officers started swinging their arms through the crowd to open a pathway ("You people understand sign language, don'cha?" one trooper said), the crowd pressed itself tighter against the walls to make room. And when testimony on the bill finally began, the audience made no response when the small handful of attendees speaking in opposition referred to "hordes of illegals" or made references to terrorists and pedophiles in their strenuous efforts to prevent any undocumented immigrant from ever taking a driver's test or buying auto insurance.

Many of those testifying, however, pointed out the absurdity of the current law. "Let's deal with the practical realities," said Lydia Edwards, an attorney with the Brazilian Immigrant Center. "People didn't come here for a driver's license, and they won't leave here without a driver's license. So let's make sure there's safe driving by people who are already driving on our streets."

In contrast to unsubstantiated assertions made by those testifying in opposition to the bill, states that have passed Safe Driving laws have showna decrease in unregistered vehicles and unlicensed drivers, as well as a drop in motor vehicle accident fatalities. In New Mexico, the drop in fatalities after passage of the law was almost 22 percent (See the University of New Mexico's annual report) noted Shannon Erwin, State Policy Director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

The safety extends beyond accidents, as well. Senator Jamie Eldridge said, "There's much better peace of mind and security if those who are undocumented at least have a form of documentation."

Sergeant Glenn Fossa, of the Fitchburg Police Department, agreed. "As a police officer for 30 years, I can tell you that the fear is on both sides. We currently have nothing; at least this bill gives us something."  Celia J. Blue, of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, also testified that the bill would surely reduce accidents, as well as contribute some $15 million to state coffers.

Others, like former U.S. immigration judge William Joyce, emphasized the relief the bill would provide to overburdened courts. "These are residents of Massachusetts -- they've often been here 10 or 15 years," Joyce said at a lively press conference before the hearing. "Officials like me are sick and tired of wasting the resources of law enforcement and clogging up the courts simply because these residents can't get licenses. Let's take the high road and allow them to drive."

Many immigrants and allies came forward to testify about the myriad ways the current law hurts innocent people. Julia Koehler, M.D., spoke of patients whose ill children risked grievous outcomes when the parents can't 't drive to doctors. Valdirene Oliveira, a Brazilian immigrant whose daughter suffers from Spina Bifida, spoke at the press conference of having to make that decision every time her "beautiful and very intelligent" 7-year-old daughter needs a treatment.

At the end of the hearing, Co-Chair Strauss granted all those who wished to add testimonies to come forward, and a slew of hands shot up from immigrantssafe driving hearing 2 who wanted to offer their spontaneous personal stories.

Each story had  a distinct twist, but the most moving testimony may have come from 12-year-old Tony Perez, whose father is a member of Just Communities in
Western Massachusetts. He spoke of the terror he experienced when his father was arrested for driving without a license. "They treated him like a criminal. But my dad isn't a criminal," said the young Mr. Perez. "I don't want other kids to go through what I went through." 


The MA Safe Driving Coalition includes over 50 organizations: The African Council; Agencia ALPHA; American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; American Friends Service Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Berkshire Immigrant Center; Brazilian Immigrant Center; Brazilian Women's Group; Boston New Sanctuary Movement; Brockton Interfaith Community; Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores New Bedford (CCT); Cleghorn Neighborhood Center; CEDC of Southeastern Massachusetts; Centro Cristiano Tiempo de Dios; Centro Bom Samaritano; Chelsea Collaborative; Clinicians for Healthy Familes; Committee for Portuguese Legislation; Congregacion Leon de Juda; Dominican Development Center; Essex County Community Organization (ECCO); Framingham Adult ESL Plus; Greater Worcester Immigration Coalition; Hampshire Franklin Central Labor Council; Harvest Ministries of New England; Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia de Lynn; Immigration Pastoral Center, Inc.; Imperial Auto LLC; Irish International Immigrant Center; Joyce & Associates, P.C.; Just Communities of Western Massachusetts; La Comunidad, Inc.; Latino Health Institute; Latinos Unidos en Massachusetts (LUMA); Metro West Worker Center; Midwest Grill; Massachusetts Community Action Network; Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA); Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI); MIRA USA; Muqueca Restaurant; Merrimack Valley Project (MVP); New Lynn Coalition; Lynn Worker Center; REACH Beyond Domestic Violence; Maria Luisa de Moreno Int. Foundation; Neighbor to Neighbor (Worcester); Neighbors United for a Better East Boston (NUBE); Radio 650 AM; Rapo & Jepsen Insurance; 32BJ SEIU District 615; 1199 SEIU; SEIU Local 509; Spettus Steak House; Sonia’s Auto Car; Stephen W. Gersh Insurance Agency, Inc.; Temple Hillel B'nai Torah;UNITE HERE Local 26; United Interfaith Action of Southwestern Massachusetts; Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice; Worcester Interfaith.

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