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Advocates march in Riverhead to promote equal access to driver’s licenses

03/12/2019 5:42 PM |

As Dulce Rojas views it, the issue of equal access to driver’s licenses for all residents in New York State is less about immigration that it is about “common sense legislation.”

Allowing all New York residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license would improve public safety, provide a boost to the state’s economy and allow immigrants to navigate their communities without fear, according to organizers of a rally in Riverhead Tuesday afternoon.

More than a hundred people marched down Roanoke Avenue to Main Street and then east all the way to Route 58, ending at the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot, where the group dispersed. It wasn’t a protest so much as a rally to support immigrant rights promoted by Green Light NY, a statewide coalition lobbying for legislation that would ensure everyone has access to a driver’s license.

“It would give 400,000 new drivers the capacity to apply for a license and with that comes applying, a test, learning the public safety measures — and it also comes with buying insurance, buying cars,” said Ms. Rojas, of Ronkonkoma. “It’s just safer communities in general.”

The group chanted in both Spanish and English as they marched, yelling, “What do we want? License!” and “People, united, will never be defeated!”

The rally emerged from two recent town halls, one in Riverhead and one in Huntington. Those meetings were meant to inform people about motor vehicle laws, such as driving with a false license, and immigration consequences that can result from misdemeanor offenses. About 300 people attended the town hall in Riverhead last week, said Ms. Rojas, who’s a member of SEPA Mujer, a group that works with immigrant women. SEPA Mujer was one of the organizers of the rally.

People at those town hall events wanted to do something and take action, she said.

“Right now at the state level there’s a large mobilization going on, so this also gave us the opportunity for people who couldn’t go to Albany to do something on the local level,” Ms. Rojas said.

The march began at the headquarters of another rally organizer, the Center of Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment (CASA).

“It’s an act of humanity,” said the Rev. Gerardo Romo, an Episcopal priest. “Our workers, especially rural workers with no public transportation, have no way to transport themselves. So they’re driving illegally without a license because they have no choice. They’re driving without insurance. They’re paying very high rates when they buy a car. It’s all a mess. They are part of the economy. And the economy is made by service and farmworkers.”

The Green Light coalition estimates that expanding driver’s license access would generate $57 million in annual revenue for state’s economy.

Other organizers included Hispanic Ministry for the East End, Long Island Jobs with Justice, the Suffolk Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Long Island Immigrant Student Activists.

“You need transportation, you need a license,” Ms. Rojas said.

She added that a license and the ability to drive are often critical for victims of domestic violence. Her organization at SEPA Mujer works with those victims, she said.

“Having a license would definitely be a huge resource and relief for lots of immigrant women,” she said.

Katherine Ochoa of Mastic said she was marching to fight for immigrants and sex workers’ rights. A native of Honduras who immigrated to the U.S. at age 5 to join her parents, Ms. Ochoa, now 25, said she had been able to apply for a driver’s license through DACA.

“Being able to apply for a license changed my life,” she said. “Before then I had no hope for the future, no hope to get a job, no hope to do anything.”

Ms. Ochoa said reducing people to non-citizen status leads to their being exploited. Giving them rights, such as the ability to get a driver’s license, can limit the instances of people being forced to do things against their will, she said.

The marchers were greeted with mostly positive feedback from passing motorists and people on the street. A man and woman waved a blue Trump 2020 flag at the group as they went by an auto shop on East Main Street. A few people held anti-abortion signs on the opposite side of the street at one point as well.

Ms. Rojas said organizers had been hoping for about 50 people to walk and chant. She was pleasantly surprised to see so large a group show up.

“I’m happy we did what we did,” she said.

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