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How undocumented immigrants won driver’s licenses in Massachusetts

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On May 5, under a scorching Boston afternoon sun, a motley group of Central American immigrant leaders and their families were strewn across the steps under the towering, ornate cast iron gates of the Massachusetts State House. Joined by mostly younger, non-immigrant allied organizers, the air was charged with nervous anticipation. An eclectic mix of Latin-American music, from traditional mariachi to Bad Bunny, boomed over a mobile PA system. Spontaneous chants of “Que queremos? Licencias! Cuando? Ahora!”  or “What do we want? Licenses! When? Now!” broke out amongst ongoing laughter and chatter. 

Sometime around 2 p.m. the news was finally announced: in a veto-proof majority, the state senate voted 32-8 to pass the Work and Family Mobility Act, a bill that would allow undocumented people to apply for a driver’s liscense. Through hugs, tears and unabashed dancing, a unified chant of “Si se pudo!” or “Yes we did!” emerged. 

In a Democratic stronghold like Massachusetts, it might seem like passing this law was a foregone conclusion. After the passage, Senate President Karen Spilka proudly tweeted:  “We are a nation of immigrants … We all benefit from increased public safety. And everyone deserves to feel safe and get to work, pick up children and be a part of their communities without fear.”

While the corporate media were tripping over themselves to celebrate a feel-good win that credited Democratic lawmakers, a closer look reveals a story that is a bit more complicated, and more instructive for organizers. The truth is that the first version of the Work and Family Mobility Act, colloquially known as “Licenses for All,” had been introduced over 15 years prior. Despite consistent Democratic supermajorities in both the state house and senate, lawmakers killed the bill session after session before it could even emerge from the Transportation Committee, because they did not want to be forced to take public stance on a controversial issue. So what changed their tune, from not wanting to touch the issue with a 40-foot pole, to becoming “champions” of the immigrant community? 

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The answer lies somewhere in the previously described image of a multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational coalition dancing in the streets together. Over several years, members of Cosecha, Cosecha allies and Never Again Action collaborated on dozens of actions: sit-ins, encampments, marches and even a week-long hunger strike. But the trust required to pull off these protests — many on a time crunch and with few resources — was not built overnight. 

About three years prior to the eventual passage of the law, immigrant leaders in Cosecha convened to discuss where to focus their efforts. According to longtime activist and Cosecha leader David Rolando, licenses was one of several issues. “We were deciding between focusing on housing, migration support and licenses,” he said. “After a week of discussion we decided on licenses.” 

The value of a driver’s license may be more than meets the eye. Being able to get around in a car is an essential form of travel in most of the United States. A 2016 report estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants live in Massachusetts, many of whom must drive to get to work, bring their kids to school and see family. Therefore traffic stops are the number one pipeline to deportation and criminalization of undocumented people, and thus a daily threat and terror for the immigrant community. 

It was also a strategic moment to focus on the issue of licenses because Cosecha was not the only group thinking about it. Around the same time a coalition of unions, worker centers, faith and community organizations formed the Driving Families Forward coalition, which focused its efforts on more traditional lobbying of politicians.

That same summer, reports of what is now famously referred to as “kids in cages” in ICE facilities at the Texas-Mexico border broke many liberals out of their general slumber on immigration and prompted mass protests across the country. One of the organizations formed out of that time was the Jewish-led Never Again Action, which, as the name suggests, proactively evoked the Holocaust to mobilize non-immigrant allies to take to the streets. 

I worked with other committed organizers to help found the Boston chapter of Never Again, but after a summer of mass mobilizations that were more about expressing outrage than achieving concrete goals, our core team was looking for a place to focus our efforts. Through the protests a few of us had begun to build relationships with Cosecha organizers. Emily Bloch, a non-immigrant organizer with Cosecha met with our team and spoke frankly about her observations after years of volunteering in the immigrant rights movement: Immigrants were accustomed to allies coming out to a big protest and then lying dormant on immigration until the next exceptionally grotesque news story. If we were serious about supporting the immigrant community, the licenses campaign was the way to do it. 

Power mapping revealed that the main chokepoints for passing the bill were Transportation Committee Chair William Straus, who for years had demurred on bringing the bill to a vote, and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, who basically served as the Don of the statehouse, able to move your office to the windowless basement or remove you from a committee appointment if you voted against his line. In return for obedience, he made sure that state representatives would not have to take controversial votes by making sure those bills did not get brought out of the committees they were developed in. 

Between Cosecha and Never Again Action, we recognized what unique skills our organizations brought to the table: many members of Never Again had experience planning direct actions and were able to take on higher levels of legal risk. Members of Cosecha were able to bring powerful, direct testimony in speaking truth to power, and engage in multi-day, if not multi-week-long actions that required high levels of sacrifice and community support. 

Never Again Action activists and Cosecha Allies leading a sit-in in speaker of the house Robert DeLeo’s office in winter 2020. (Facebook/Cosecha Massachusetts)

Our first major collaboration was a several hour sit-in that targeted Speaker DeLeo. A group of allies went to his office posing as earnest concerned constituents. When told to make an appointment, we sat down and said we’d be happy to wait until he was free to talk. As the tension rose, immigrant leaders gave speeches and told stories about the urgency of licenses. The livestream of about a dozen allies being arrested by the state police got over 10,000 views, and put DeLeo on notice. While no politician or lobbyist dared to confront him head on, a ragtag group of immigrants and allies was unafraid, and had no plans to leave him alone. 

Over the next three years, we collaborated on over a dozen actions together. In the midst of the pandemic — when attention was everywhere but on licenses — Cosecha led a three-week encampment outside the statehouse. Through hot days, cold nights, and at times violent rain, immigrant leaders displayed incredible physical and emotional stamina, sleeping in tents on the sidewalk, leading chants, songs, daily dancing, speeches and other programming to maintain morale. Most of the food and water donations came from the immigrant community. 

Allies, including from Never Again, Cosecha Allies, Pioneer Valley Workers Center and others took on security shifts, including overnight ones, which, unfortunately, proved crucial. One night a white supremacist drove his pickup truck towards the tents, stopping only when security rushed in front of him. The police harassed organizers as well, attempting to take away the port-o-potty brought out by a local union. 

Cosecha leader Amparo Bolpe described how the collaboration between communities allowed for bolder, more sustained action. “When we planned something that carried greater risk that we knew we could not do [alone] because of our [immigration] status, we always thought of Never Again Action,” she said. “They were always there when we needed them, giving them security in any action. I think that working together led us to victory, so the fight without this group would not have been possible.”

Cosecha leader David Rolando receiving a medical check-in while on a week-long hunger strike in the Massachusetts State House in winter 2020. (Facebook/Cosecha Massachusetts)

What was perhaps one of the most crucial actions in tipping the scales of the campaign, 10 immigrant leaders and three allies held a five day hunger strike during the week of the legislative deadline for the bill to get out of the transportation committee (or risk having to wait another year to be voted on). Everyday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. we assembled in one of the main halls of the statehouse with its 100 foot ceilings and marble floor, forcing legislators to literally step over fasting immigrant leaders on their way to house sessions. Allies provided security, liaised with the police, and took some iconic photos which helped garner press coverage. Every evening after the statehouse closed to the public, we would gather together in a nearby church to sing, share reflections and gratitude, and prepare plans for the next day’s logistics. 

Some organizations in the Driving Families Forward coalition begged the Cosecha leaders to stop the strike, fearing that the polarization would drive away moderate Democrats who were on the fence about supporting the bill. Cosecha refused to bend to the pressure, and the hunger strike continued, turning what had, year after year, been a dead-on-arrival bill, into the hottest issue in the statehouse. Hours before the deadline, the chair of the transportation committee, WIlliam Straus, reluctantly brought it to a vote, where it passed with flying colors. Several legislators told me that the pressure from the hunger strike is what forced the vote.

The milestone of getting the bill out of committee was an enormous morale boost. It also gave us the chance to celebrate, reflect and continue to deepen relationships with one another. It was during this time that we began to hold joint-debriefs and strategy sessions that doubled as community dinners. Over pupusas and empanadas, we created a year’s worth of escalation plans, but also got to actually know one another. There was plenty of awkwardness, especially with barriers of race, age, class and certainly language. But, over time we developed inside jokes, reminisced on the actions we had done together and dreamed up what would be possible in the future. 

Don Rolando described how the trust built through dinners and working together time and time again, allowed for the immigrant community to grow in boldness and unity. “When we started, there was a lot of fear to participate,” he said. “Whenever we marched, we always did it on the sidewalks, but after a year and a half of collaboration and building we had broken the fear and we took over the full street.”

Unfortunately, the fight did not stop after May 5. About a month after the Work and Family Mobility Act was officially signed into law, the Massachusetts Republican Party seized on the new legislation as a chance to mobilize their base, tapping into vicious anti-immigrant sentiment within the GOP. A coalition of conservatives, calling themselves Fair and Secure MA, began a furious effort to gather tens of thousands of signatures to make the Work and Family Mobility Act a ballot question. 

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Setting up outside of gun shops, grocery stores and shopping centers in conservative strongholds across Massachusetts, the counter-campaign relied on a simple, indelicate and racist message: “Do you think ‘illegal’ immigrants should have the same rights as you?” Disturbingly, in about three months of signature gathering, the state Republicans reported that they submitted 100,000 signatures before the Aug. 28 deadline, well past the number needed to put a repeal of the law on the ballot. Despite the ferocity of the GOP counter campaign, polling looks cautiously optimistic to protect the law and the Driving Families Forward coalition is organizing a YES on 4 campaign to mobilize voters on the issue.

How powerful the GOP counter campaign will be remains to be seen, but the lessons from the multi-year collaboration between immigrant organizers in Cosecha and ally organizers are clear. Building trust, both through taking action and sharing social space, was essential to building the organizational, emotional and spiritual capacity to take on the entrenched powers at the statehouse. Learning to identify our respective strengths allowed us to collaborate in ways that, over time, transcended a simple leader versus supporter binary. 

Moreover, the respect developed over years of collaboration empowered directly affected organizers to lead with strategic clarity and ally organizers to be unafraid to offer our opinions and skills — each group trusting that we know our roles and will always find a way to put aside disagreements in service of our shared goals.

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