Hitting the road, legally

Undocumented immigrants gain access to driver’s licenses; locals demand national reform

By Chris O'Neal 10/17/2013

Tuesday, Oct. 1, in downtown Oxnard, David Finn struggles to keep a homemade Organizing for Action sign from falling to the floor. As he applies more tape to the wall at the Center for Employment Training, volunteers trickle in behind him. Everyone at the CET building that night had one goal in mind: to persuade voters to call their representative to express their support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit community organizing project, began as a way to promote President Barack Obama’s multifaceted agenda leading up to his re-election in 2012. Immigration reform is a major component of OFA.

On Sept. 26, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 60, a bill giving illegal immigrants, aka undocumented immigrants/workers, the right to carry a state-issued driver’s license, joining 10 other states that have similar programs. The licenses, though viable for driving, will have special markings signaling that they cannot be used as identification for state benefits or employment.

Two weeks later, on Saturday, Oct. 5, Brown signed a bill giving qualified illegal immigrants the ability to practice law, but vetoed a bill that would allow noncitizens to be jurors.

The state estimates that up to 1.4 million will apply for driver’s licenses in California. An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the country with an estimated 71,000 in Ventura County.

Meanwhile, at the national level, immigration reform is making slower progress, and Finn said that he believes what’s happening at the state level isn’t going far enough.

“The benefits of all of these millions of undocumented residents, if that earning power was put at Walmart or Penny’s or wherever,” says Finn, “the economy would be even better. We’re talking about a stronger economy. It’s a fatter, multimillion-dollar security web.”

In June, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that stalled in making its way to the House, but on Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (HR 15) was introduced, a sign that the process may be speeding up.

Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, has been a strong supporter of immigration reform who hopes to see the bill in the House as soon as possible.

“Everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken,” said Brownley via email. “We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that invests in our future, drives our economy, protects American jobs and keeps families and communities together.”

HR 15 would reduce the deficit by $850 billion and increase economic growth by 3.3 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and would include parts of previous reform attempts, such as the provisions from the bipartisan McCaul-Thompson bill addressing border security as a top priority in exchange for immigrant benefits.

“Despite repeated pleas from Senate leadership, House Democrats and the American people, Speaker [John] Boehner chose not to bring up the Senate passed bill in the House,” said Brownley. “In fact, if Speaker Boehner brought up the Senate bill in the House today, it would clearly pass. However, he is refusing to do so.”

Juana Tapia, executive director at the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) located in Oxnard, is pleased with Brown’s signature on AB 60, but said she believes it’s just a portion of what is needed.

“This is just a small relief. It’s very helpful that California is able to do this, but what we’d like to see is comprehensive immigration reform at the national level,” she said.

With CLUE, Tapia has fought not only for immigrant rights, but to aide undocumented workers in boosting their self-image and bettering their family life.

“By giving them an opportunity to become legal, permanent residents,” said Tapia, “that would take care of the problem. We’re hoping that will happen during this year.”

An hour after Finn’s arrival at the CET building, several volunteers had appeared and taken their seats at various tables scattered around the large room. Using their own personal phones, the volunteers began making calls.

“I think this is an important part of the democratic process,” said Organizing for Action volunteer Yacine Woodall. “I don’t see how we have anything to gain by disenfranchising those who want to come and become a part of this society and contribute. We never know where the next cure for cancer is going to come from.”

The following Saturday, Finn and other volunteers joined like-minded individuals for a rally in front of the Santa Barbara courthouse in celebration of National Day for Immigrant Dignity and Respect.

On the opposite end of the country, activists rallied in support of immigration reform on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and several demonstrators were arrested for civil disobedience, including Oxnard local Fabio Calderon, a member of the United Farm Workers branch in Oxnard.

For Finn, making phone calls is only a small part of making a difference.

“Whether people acknowledge it or not, there would be tens of billions going into the economy if they [immigrants] could stay,” said Finn. “That’s what we exist for because of how partisan everything is.”

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