María Bilbao and Amrry González are undocumented immigrants from Latin America who need a driver’s license, not just to drive but also to travel, rent or buy a house and clear a host of many other hurdles legal residents don’t even think about.
“It’s truly stressful not having a driver license,” said Bilbao, from Argentina. “It’s a constant fear about being stopped and in jail and then deported.”
González, a Nicaraguan, said he has lost jobs because he does not have a driver’s license.
“Without a license, I have lost income,” said González. “When I had a driver license I had better jobs. When it expired in 2007 I lost work. My life changed.”
It is to help people like Bilbao and González, two of more than 900,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in Florida, that immigration activists have launched a new campaign aimed at convincing the state legislature to pass a law allowing foreign nationals without immigration status to apply for driver licenses.
Activists say the issue is all the more relevant in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to delay until after the November elections his plan to grant immigration status to many undocumented immigrants via executive orders.
“Driver licenses are very important,” said María Rodríguez, executive director of Florida Immigrant Coalition. “Families of immigrants face the fear of deportation for being in the highways, and case after case after case that we see of deportations is because of driving without a license.”
Often, police officers who detain an immigrant driving without a license will arrest him or her, and then immigration authorities pick up the foreign national and start deportation proceedings.
FLIC, in coordination with about 70 other organizations, is spearheading the pro-driver license campaign to accomplish these major goals:
Gathering 10,000 signatures from the public statewide supporting driver licenses for the undocumented.
Knocking on the doors of 20,000 voters statewide urging them to vote for candidates who support the drive.
Approaching prominent personalities such as Republican Gov. Rick Scott, his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist and others to support the effort.
Advising everyone that allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver licenses improves public safety because they can be tested for driving skills and will be able to buy insurance.
Activists are seeking to turn Florida into the 12th state in the nation to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver licenses.
Drive Safe Sunshine State is the official title of the campaign, said Rodríguez, the FLIC executive director.
“The campaign basically seeks to do what 11 other states have already done which is provide an ability for those who know how to drive, have car insurance independent of their immigration status,” said Rodríguez.
Besides collecting signatures and approaching voters, activists have also approached the two Florida governor’s race candidates, Republican incumbent Scott and Democrat challenger Crist, to endorse the campaign, said Rodríguez.
Crist has indirectly signaled his support by agreeing to pose next to Bilbao, who was carrying a large mock-up of a Florida license at a recent event in Miami Gardens. Bilbao also showed up Wednesday night in Hialeah when Crist opened a new campaign office there. This time, Bilbao yelled for Crist to endorse driver licenses for undocumented immigrants, but the candidate did not respond during his speech.
Bilbao and other activists said Crist’s running mate, Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, has added her name to the petition seeking 10,000 support signatures.
The Crist campaign did not respond to el Nuevo Herald requests for comment on activists’ claims.
Rodríguez said campaign volunteers have also approached Scott, but that so far the Republican governor has not clearly stated his position on the issue.
The Scott campaign did not respond to a request for comment from el Nuevo Herald.
In 2013, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed driver’s licenses for some undocumented immigrants— namely, young people given reprieves from deportation under President Barack Obama’s program for those who arrived as children to the United States.
Activists also expect Hialeah state Sen. René García to once again introduce a driver license bill for undocumented immigrants. The state Legislature begins annual meetings in March.