Bishop to Legislature: With driver’s license bill, Minnesotans have moral obligation to immigrants

| March 26, 2015 | 0 Comments
From left, Angela Zamora, Jose Chavez and Gabriela Zamora hold signs March 25 supporting a measure to allow immigrants without legal status to obtain a provisional driver’s license at the State Office Building at the Capitol in St. Paul. Maria Wiering / The Catholic Spirit

From left, Angela Zamora, Jose Chavez and Gabriela Zamora hold signs March 25 supporting a measure to allow immigrants without legal status to obtain a provisional driver’s license at the State Office Building at the Capitol in St. Paul. Maria Wiering / The Catholic Spirit

Bishop Andrew Cozzens called a measure to allow Minnesotans without legal status to obtain provisional driver’s licenses or state-issued identification “good policy even if it’s politically difficult.”

“We have really a moral imperative to assist the immigrants in our midst, to ensure that we do not create a subclass of citizens living in the shadows of society,” he said.

Bishop Cozzens, an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was among advocates who testified March 25 in support of H.F.97 before members of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.  He spoke to the measure’s practical and moral dimensions.

“As legislators, one of the things you have been entrusted with is helping build a moral and disciplined society. One of the most common exhortations in the Hebrew-Christian Bible is the command to welcome the stranger,” said Bishop Cozzens, who spoke on behalf of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the local Church’s public policy voice.

“While some might look upon undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers, I really believe that people who come to this country [are] seeking a life free from crime, poverty and other things. Their situation I find very difficult to call ‘law breaking.’”

The State Office Building’s basement hearing room was standing-room-only during the 45-minute block of testimonies. Most attendees appeared to be in favor of the bill and wore stickers with slogans such as “One State, One License.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the bill’s primary sponsor, urged his colleagues to consider it, despite the polarizing nature of the immigration issue. “This is about safe roads and insured drivers,” he said.

“If we would enact something like this, we would have an individual go through training, who will have a driver’s license and will have insurance,” he added, warning that if the law does not pass, people without legal status will still be driving, but without training, licensure or insurance.

Willmar Chief of Police James Felt said in his testimony that he believed the measure “will result in more licensed and insured drivers in Minnesota, and therefore enhance the safety of everyone.”

Other law enforcement officials and members of Minnesota’s immigrant communities also testified. Among them were Jovita Morales and Jazmin Violante Francisco, a mother and daughter who jointly told their story of delayed reunification after the 2007 Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Francisco, now 18, and her brother were on the school bus that clung to a piece of the fallen bridge. Her mother, a native of Mexico, did not have a driver’s license because she does not have legal status, which prevented her from meeting her children quickly after the tragedy, she said. Later Morales did risk driving without a license, she said, because her children needed to go to the hospital, she said.

Francisco said she was traumatized, in part, because she waited so long that day for her mother. Now she understands, she said, “they couldn’t take the risk to drive.”

Because the hearing was for information only, members did not vote on the measure March 25.

In a March 12 column in The Catholic Spirit, MCC Executive Director Jason Adkins said the concern that a provisional driver’s license could be abused is “unwarranted, particularly because a provisional license can be clearly marked in a way to distinguish them from other licenses and forms of identification,” he said. “Ultimately, the main objection to the proposed legislation is a concern about rewarding those seen as ‘lawbreakers.’ But … the causes and solutions to immigration are complex, and the reality is that most immigrants are in our communities to stay.”

Wearing a “One State, One License” sticker, Josefina Garcia, 33, said her husband has a license, but she doesn’t because she does not have legal status. Her husband shuttles her from their home in Minneapolis to her work as a machine operator in Eden Prairie. Despite her legal status, supplying information for a driver’s license does not concern her, she said.

“We come to the U.S. to work, and we try to stay in the laws of the country,” said Garcia, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 16. “It’s not easy for us . . . we have many obstacles.”

Antonio Herrera, 38, said not having a license or valid identification made him fear police. He now has legal status, and said life with a driver’s license is “so different” than life before.

“We didn’t come here to make trouble,” said Herrera, a parishioner of Assumption in Richfield. “We came here to get a better life.”

In his testimony, Bishop Cozzens argued that the measure was especially important for Minnesota’s rural communities, where immigrants lack access to public transportation.  He said it would help immigrants get to work and run family errands, but also build trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference was among 19 signers of a statement of support for H.F. 97 and its companion bill S.F. 224 from members and leaders of Minnesota’s faith communities.

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