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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Licenses for Immigrants Down The Road in Massachusetts

By Natalia Muñoz

Driver’s licenses for undocumented workers will be on the agenda when Richard Chacón, executive director of the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants, presents his list of recommendations to Gov. Deval Patrick in July.

“It’s going to be part of the conversation,” he said at a recent community meeting in Springfield sponsored by the Alliance to Develop Power, Northampton’s Center for New Americans and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees.

It’s not promise of implementation but it is a step in addressing one of many vexing immigration policies.

One of President Barack Obama’s own aunts, Zeituni Onyango, here illegally from Kenya, got a free pass to stay in the U.S., because her nephew is, after all, the president.

But there are 12 million people who are still counting on Obama to deliver on his promise of reforming immigration policies.

The government knows millions of undocumented immigrants are here and that most are working joes, accepts their taxes but doesn’t let them apply for a driver’s license.

The license is the difference between getting stopped for a broken tail light and then getting deported, or just paying the fine and the getting thing fixed.

The call for a license has been heard at several meetings convened by Patrick, who in 2008 signed into law the New Americans Agenda, an innovative initiative to integrate all immigrants into the commonwealth.

Sponsors expected 200 people at the meeting at the meeting in Springfield last week, but 350 showed up. It was yet another example of Patrick’s governing style, where his own version of Washington, D.C., K Street lobbyists are from the Main Streets of Massachusetts.

The agenda was simple: Ask the participants to list their top recommendations for the state to take under advisement.

Immigrants, refugees and U.S.-born nationals broke into groups divided by language. Georgians, Mexicans, Somalis, Iranians found themselves huddled alongside Chacón, state Rep. Benjamin Swan of Springfield and other members of the Advisory Council.

Among the issues residents from Western Massachusetts prioritized in the auditorium of St. Mary’s Church was the urgent need for more English-language classes and help to deal with abusive employers and police.

“The governor needs a mandate,” said Caroline Murray, executive director of ADP, an organization that teaches people sunk in apathy to tap into their anger, transform it into hope and then do something about the injustices that muted them in the first place.

It isn’t the first time that the ADP has brought everyone to the table, usually in a church hall, from the most vulnerable to the most powerful.

When Murray says things like, “We’re trying to create a better world for everybody” or “Our work is still ahead of us,” it is a call for action that fills churches to capacity the Vatican can only envy.

William Cano, an ADP organizer, believes that a license or ID will be available to undocumented immigrants given the growing chorus of people asking for it statewide.

Murray has sloshed through the mud at times to inform rivals, as when she took on the smug Bill O’Reilly and tenaciously showed him the door to morality. In the 2007 television interview to talk about a video that shows undocumented immigrants their rights, she managed to slip in some common sense into the idiotic but popular program.

Back then, ICE officers were notoriously abusing their charge. In this region, 20 ICE officials barged into a Springfield home and forcibly removed its occupants, including a woman in the shower.

The immigration police had also raided a leather factory in New Bedford that produced equipment for U.S. troops in Iraq, leaving the children of 400 workers unattended and creating what an outraged Patrick aptly called a “humanitarian crisis.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy saw the federally-induced mayhem up close.

“In my 45 years of public life,” he said, “this was one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever witnessed. Babies were screaming for their mothers. Wives were desperately searching for information about their husbands.”

His introduction to the ultimately defeated 2007 immigration reform bill recognized that undocumented immigrants do not disrespect the law for the ha-has of it. They stand against dying of poverty.

“They are men and women of dignity. They work hard every day. They care for their families,” he said, ever unabashedly passionate.

Obama’s and Patrick’s commitment to social justice is real. Their challenge is to show lawmakers the right way to continue to build the country founded on a sacred set of values.

Otherwise, Chacón’s report will be doomed to the dusty storerooms where so many fabulous PowerPoint Presentations end up.

Natalia Muñoz is editor of La Prensa of Western Massachusetts