Montevideo's immigrant community rallies to cause; freedom to drive a major need for many families
MONTEVIDEO — It took no more than a phone call from a pastor in a neighboring community to motivate dozens of people in Montevideo's immigrant community to do what most had never done before.
In the last couple of weeks, they have made two bus trips to the State Capitol, met with state legislators, and signed petitions and letters.
They are on their way to Willmar on Saturday morning. They hope to persuade State Sen. Andrew Lang at a town hall meeting at Cornerstone Coffee to support their call for legislation that would allow them to obtain Minnesota driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status.
"We have a lot of needs here in Monte," said the Rev. Cristina Aldana, pastor of the New Jerusalem Pentecost Church in Montevideo. "One of the more (important) needs is to have a driver's license."
That's how Aldana explained why many in her community have rallied at the chance to support the freedom-to-drive legislation authored by Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley.
Aldana had taken the call from a fellow pastor urging the Montevideo residents to join the faith-based civil rights organization Asamblea de Derechos Civiles in support of the legislation.
David Anariba, a 2008 Montevideo High School graduate, is among those who are telling legislators why they believe this is so important.
"My parents didn't have licenses," Anariba said. "They were scared to drive." It meant they were unable to watch him compete in high school athletics, which he loved.
It also meant he didn't get involved in athletics until the 10th grade. Many of the community's children whose parents are immigrants are just simply unable to participate in athletics and other extracurricular programs at school. They don't have the means to get to school and practices outside of the regular school day, he explained.
He was able to get a driver's license only after high school, when he was already in his 20s. He obtained legal residency through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Xochiot Merino, 16, participates in dance, track and volleyball. She said she knows many who do not participate in sports because their parents do not have driver's licenses. She's been passing out cards asking for support from instructors and others for the legislation.
Carlos Merino said that he relies on public transportation to get to work. He points out that he and other immigrants in the community are all here to work but face challenges most others in the workforce do not.
To take a job, you essentially have to move to the community where the job is located. There's no opportunity for spouses to work in different towns, he said.
Just getting to the store for groceries can be a challenge for her parents, said Lieby Sanchez, 14. Prairie Five Rides provides public transportation in the community, but its hours are limited.
Absent a driver's license, simple things like visiting friends in neighboring communities or just enjoying a meal at a restaurant in another town are not available, Anariba and others said.
Some people do risk driving without a license, which poses safety concerns, noted Anariba. Getting a driver's license means drivers would know the laws of the road.
And what happens when there is an emergency, such as the need to get to medical help? Pastor Aldana said that's not the time to call for public transportation.
She said a driver's license is now required at the local Walmart when sending or receiving money orders. It's a form of identification requested often, she said.
Carlos Merino said passports and driver's licenses from other countries are often not accepted. For one, they don't have the person's local address.
Because they deal with these kinds of issues every day, Merino said he and 26 others from the community felt it was worth taking time off from work and school and hopping on a bus to St. Paul at 5 a.m. to make their case. They were in the Capitol rotunda when the House approved Winkler's legislation on a 75 - 52 vote one week ago.
The most awesome moment of it all, he said, was when Gov. Tim Walz met with them and voiced his support for the legislation.
Their focus now is on getting support in the Senate, where there is not a companion bill. The need for support in the Senate is among the reasons these Montevideo supporters made an earlier bus trip to knock on the doors of office holders in St. Paul.
They managed a brief meeting with Sen. Lang, whose district includes Montevideo. They said they emphasized to him that all of them would pursue citizenship if there was a pathway available to them. For most, there is not.
They also emphasized that citizenship and their status as immigrants is entirely a federal matter. It's in the state's power to make driver's licenses available and address their needs as people who fill needed jobs and contribute to the region's economy, Aldana said.
The teenage Sanchez had the last word in the meeting with Sen. Lang. "I hope that God will touch your heart. Not having a license is a worry for me and my parents," she is quoted by the group as stating in a recent letter to the editor published in the Montevideo American News.
"It is very difficult,'' said Anariba of the challenges created by the inability to obtain a driver's license. He said legislators need to know that it's not just the adults who are hurt by it, but their children as well.