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Immigrants plead for Minnesota driver's licenses

Jose Sanchez, right, pleads with a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, to allow undocumented immigrants to be allowed to get driver's licenses. with him is Jackson Bahn. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Jose Sanchez says his immigrant community fears living without driver's licenses.

"Our community needs licenses to get around, to get to work, to get to school," he told a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

"I ask that you listen to us and deal with your heart," he pleaded before the Republican-controlled committee voted 8-6 along party lines to keep in a provision that would enact a law banning immigrants to the United States without legal documentation from getting a license.

Current state law is silent on whether undocumented immigrants can get licenses, but a state rule bans it. Proponents of allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses say it would improve safety on the roads and decrease those driving illegally and without insurance.

"We need the licenses so we can live and work in safety and peace," Sanchez said.

Immigrant advocates said the issue is especially important in greater Minnesota, where driving is a necessity because buses and trains are not available like in the Twin Cities. They unsuccessfully urged lawmakers to change the Real ID bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses.

"It does, in effect, slam the door on the 100,000 undocumented immigrants who live in Minnesota," Lars Negstad of the Isaiah organization said.

Many of those in the country illegally drive without licenses.

Bill author Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, would not budge from his bill as written, saying it simply keeps state policy as it is today. However, it would change the immigrant license ban from a rule to a law, which immigrant advocates say would be harder to change.

The overall bill is designed to bring Minnesota into compliance with the federal Real ID law. That law eventually will ban people from boarding airliners with non-Real ID licenses. Real ID requires more background checks than a regular license or state-issued identification card.

If Minnesota does not follow federal law, its residents will need to use a passport to board airliners and enter some federal facilities.

While there is a bipartisan backing for the overall Real ID bill, with some Republicans fighting it because they fear it gives federal government more control of data, GOP supporters have said little in defense of the immigrant license provision.

But immigrant groups have been far from silent.

"We think this is a moral issue," Negstad said. "We think the Bible is pretty clear that we should welcome the stranger, welcome foreigners."

John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota said allowing people who live in Minnesota to drive is critical because people in a cold-weather state need to drive themselves. He said greater Minnesota immigrants have a special need, so they can get to agriculture- and industry-related jobs.

He said the drivers are not new to the country, or the state. A majority of immigrants have been here at least 15 years, he said, and many have had at least one child born in the country.

"I would like to have their parents to be able to drive their children to school, especially in greater Minnesota," said Henry Jimenez of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs.

Immigrant activist Danielle Robinson Briand said Minnesota "is extremely car dependent, especially greater Minnesota."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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