If you’re one of the 78 percent of workers in Massachusetts who drives to your job each day, at some point you’re bound to have a broken tail light or forget to use your turn signal. If a police officer pulls you over, it might mean a warning or a ticket. But if you’re one of the state’s thousands of undocumented immigrants, it could become far more dangerous — and potentially even lead to detention and deportation.
Andrea Schmid, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center in Western Massachusetts, says she saw a case like this last month. “That is the majority of the kind of deportation defense that we have to do,” Schmid says, “because it is very easy for people to get caught up in the system that way.”
That’s why undocumented workers at the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center are organizing with immigrants across Massachusetts in favor of The Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow undocumented people to apply for a standard driver’s license.
The Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center is part of a statewide coalition led by Movimiento Cosecha, a national immigrant justice movement organizing for dignity and permanent protection for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Cosecha has launched “Driving Without Fear” campaigns in New Jersey and Michigan as well as Massachusetts.
In March, the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center co-led a march of hundreds of undocumented workers and their allies in Springfield, Massachusetts, in coordination with immigrants in six other cities across the state. And in April, undocumented workers from around Massachusetts joined together for a four-day march, walking roughly 25 miles from Framingham to the Boston State House.
The labor of thousands of undocumented immigrants allows the local food system and economy of largely rural Western Massachusetts to function. “The vast majority of [undocumented workers] are doing the invisible labor in our economy,” Schmid explains. “They do farm work — super invisible — and care work. They do restaurant work, and they’re back of the house workers, not front of the house workers,” says Schmid. “It’s the most exploitable work because it’s the work that’s easiest to get when you don’t have papers.”
The city of Springfield alone is home to an estimated 5,000 undocumented immigrants. As Marion Davis, Communications Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, points out, “For most people in Massachusetts—including undocumented immigrants—[driving] is the only way that you can get to work, or your kid to the doctor, or anything else. So lots of people are involuntarily breaking the law every day because it’s either that or they can’t live.”
Davis told Inequality.org that a license might make the difference between a minor inconvenience and the start of detention and deportation proceedings. “A tail light is a traffic offense. You don’t go into the Secure Communities system for that,” Davis explained, whereas “driving without a license is a crime.”
The Secure Communities system, created in 2011 under the Obama administration, facilitates collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement agencies. If an undocumented person is stopped by police and found to be driving without a license, their information can be entered into the Secure Communities database.
“There is a fair amount of evidence that a significant number of ICE arrests are a result of driving without a license,” says Davis. A report from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found nearly four out of five ICE detainees had no criminal record, or only committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation. ICE’s own records show more than 76,000 immigrants were charged or convicted for simple traffic violations last year, excluding DUIs.
It wasn’t always this way. Before the September 11th attacks in 2001, the American Prospect reports, most states either allowed undocumented people to drive or did not explicitly require a Social Security number to get a license. After the attacks, however, officials slashed access to driver’s licenses for those without legal status. But immigrants’ rights groups across the nation have been fighting back, pushing to restore the right to drive for undocumented people.
The first significant breakthrough came in 2013, when seven states, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. passed legislation to expand access to driver’s licenses and cards to undocumented immigrants. Since then, five more states have joined their ranks. Yet Massachusetts remains one of the few usually blue states that prevent undocumented residents from getting licenses — even as Democratic politicians pledge to offer sanctuary and support for immigrants.
Meanwhile, CityLab points out that anti-immigrant groups have been pushing for severe penalties for driving without a license, in the hopes that it could become a strategy to ramp up deportation rates. The right-wing Center for Immigration Studies touts this tactic as “attrition through enforcement.” CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian bragged that stringent driving laws encourage undocumented people to “give up and deport themselves.”
And even with licenses, undocumented people across the country are still at risk. Organizers in Massachusetts are aware of how DMVs – like those in Vermont and Washington – have collaborated with ICE, putting undocumented immigrants who apply for licenses in danger. Schmid says the ACLU and Driving Families Forward Coalition are working to ensure that the Work and Family Mobility Act would prohibit collaboration between the DMV and ICE in Massachusetts.
Even as they mobilize in favor of legal protections, the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center recognizes that they cannot depend on the government alone. As Andrea Schmid puts it: “Given what we’re up against — the state violence that is being inflicted on undocumented people all over the country — it is more important than ever that locally, we really strengthen our ties to each other and build alternative systems where people can support each other and improve their quality of life without the state involved.”
Western Massachusetts, made up of small, close-knit communities, is well-suited for this kind of collective action. “People have the assumption that it’s only in urban areas that there are vibrant immigrant communities,” Schmid says, “but that that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
In addition to their campaign work, Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center’s community-based resistance includes Sanctuary in the Streets, a network of allies who provide childcare for meetings and events, run a food distribution program, and maintain a 24-hour bilingual hotline to support undocumented residents in crises. The center is also working towards starting a cooperative farm, which will be owned and run by undocumented farmworkers.
Still, changing laws that make undocumented immigrants vulnerable to deportation is a key element to building the communities that the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center’s members and organizers envision. Schmidt says campaigns like the fight to expand license access are a place where people can come together for mutual support. “There’s a shared sense of struggle,” she says. “It’s the idea that if one of us isn’t free, none of us are free. I think that’s real.”