Pedro Lima, a house painter from Brazil who has been in the United States for
nine years, removes his hat as he enters the room. Pressing his thick,
hard-worked hands into his pockets, he speaks tentatively, but with passion. He
lives in New York and must drive in order to work, he says, “in this country
that we love so much, America.”
The “we” Lima refers to is the community of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and his plea for a driver’s license is one of thousands like it.
After months of cacophonous political debate, the voices considering giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants have fallen abruptly silent. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s license plan was rejected across the board politically, and stirred up tumultuous reactions from presidential candidates and congressmen alike.
Underneath and often silenced by the political clamor are the stories of people like Lima, whose lives would be transformed by the ability to drive legally. Like many, Lima has watched the politics unfold with ebbing hope, and is crestfallen that the change he was praying for has not come.
Those working with communities of undocumented immigrants say that necessity often forces people into driving with no license. Ramona Ortega is the daughter of Mexican immigrants whose activist parents raised her in the midst of the Chicano movement in California.
She is the founder of a non-profit organization turned to the Brazilian immigrants in the United States called Cidadão Global, meaning “global citizen” in Portuguese. As her 4-year-old son maneuvered himself on her lap, she explained the difficulties faced by the Brazilian community in particular: “The drivers license issue is huge.”
The most concentrated numbers of Brazilian immigrants are in smaller cities such as Danbury, Connecticut; Framingham, Massachusetts or Deerfield Beach, Florida. In these places, Ortega says, “You have to drive to get anywhere, so your livelihood depends on the process of driving – that’s basic. So when you don’t have a driver’s license you are putting yourself at risk every day just to make a living.”
The fear of being pulled over or getting into a car accident is very real, says Alessandro Pereira, a Brazilian immigrant who has been in the United States for nine years.
“Sometimes people, they get in accidents because of that, because they are scared of everything. Or if they get into an accident they are going to run, they are going to leave the person there. They are not going to call 911, because they know they would be in trouble not just because of being responsible for an accident, but because they didn’t have a license,” he said.
The people most in need of driver’s licenses are immigrants living in suburban settings, who must choose daily between breaking the law and not going to work. When asked if people drive without any documentation, Ortega leaned in for emphasis: “Oh absolutely, they have to drive,” she said.
Throughout the process, Spitzer’s license plan was modified a number of times, although the main objective was to include undocumented immigrants by permitting them to drive legally. Without a driver’s license, it is impossible to obtain car insurance, making the situation for unlicensed drivers even more risky. Allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses would be safer, Spitzer’s aides confirmed, reducing the number of uninsured drivers on the road and bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows.”
Illegal immigrants caught between the necessity to work and the lack of a driver’s license find ways around the law, says Tiago Hartman, a construction worker who has been in the United States for nine years. As he expertly maneuvers spoonfuls of a traditional Brazilian pudding across the table to his young daughter, the expression in his blue eyes is one of conviction. “I have always loved it here,” he says.
Four years ago, he says that it was possible to obtain a driver’s license without any false documents for a thousand dollars. Now, both the price tag and the risk are higher.
“You call the person, and the person says they will organize everything so that you can pick up the license,” he says. Although people know that the state of New Jersey requires a green card, a valid visa, or a social security card in order to get a driver’s license, “when you are desperate, you fall for it.,” he says. For this process, which includes the forging of documents, Hartman states that “here in New Jersey it costs something like $5,000.”
Ortega describes a similar process. She says that people are often caught in scams that leave them bereft and in legal trouble. “What they are doing is going really out of their way, putting themselves at risk, to go to work, to live day by day,” she says.
“Whether they’re paying people money to get on the inside to get them a driver’s license, or to file false documents,” she says the desperation is enough for people to risk everything that they have built in the United States to attempt to drive legally.
Adriana Cruz, a masters student in health care management, lives with a family in a suburb 30 minutes outside of Boston, where she goes to school. Despite her student visa, she says she is forced to deal with issues of documentation.
In a phone interview she explained that when she drives every day she must tote with her a folder filled with documents – driving record, international driver’s license among others – and their English translations. There are seven documents in total, including her passport, which she is extremely apprehensive about carrying with her.
When she uses her Brazilian passport as a form of identification, she says that she is often treated differently by bouncers at bars, but felt lucky not to be harassed by the police the one time she was pulled over, as friends had been. “There is prejudice against us for being from the Third World,” she said in Portuguese, “those of us that are here legally end up being wronged” by those who are illegal, she says.
In an interview with CNN, Spitzer defended his move to abandon the driver’s license plan, saying, “I’ve listened to the legitimate concerns of the public and those who would be affected by my proposal, and have concluded that pushing forward unilaterally in the face of such strong opposition would be counterproductive.”
The issue has riled up politicians from both the Democratic as well as Republican parties, and is responsible for Spitzer’s plummeting poll numbers – one of which says that 70% of New Yorkers oppose the plan.
Pedro Santiago spends his days surrounded by Kafka and Chaucer, Koontz and Clancy, and he reads them all voraciously, in Spanish. He walks down the street around the Morningside Bookshop where he works and is greeted every couple of steps by his various friends: backpack-toting college students, waiters on their way to work, suits on cell phones. Santiago, who, at 38, has been in New York for eight years, carries his portly figure with confidence. He has the firm handshake and loquacious manner of a born networker.
Despite living in New York City, where public transportation is available, when asked if he would take the opportunity to obtain a legal driver’s license, Santiago replies with a firm “yes.” Although he currently lives close to his job, when he moved to New York he lived almost twenty miles from the bookstore, near John F. Kennedy airport. “The first thing I hated about New York is the transportation,” he said in Spanish, “it’s terrible,” he said of the four hour daily commute from his job to his home.
The feeling within the community of undocumented immigrants, in many aspects, is of exasperation with a system that doesn’t recognize them. Ortega explains that “people are really sort of without hope right now. I think they are feeling really depressed – they were all excited,” she said.
Despite years of waiting and watching the doors to documentation slam shut, many undocumented immigrants are tiring of the struggle. Shrugging his shoulders and taking a sip of his espresso, Agnaldo dos Santos, a construction worker who has been in the U.S. ten years shakes his head, “immigrants here just never get a turn,” he says.
Cidadão Global – www.cidadaoglobal.org.
Julia Furlan is a graduate student of journalism at New York University.