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Undocumented workers share why driver's licenses matter

Nick Lippa

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill late Monday night that will allow undocumented workers in New York to obtain a driver’s license. The "Green Light Bill" was highly contested by Republican lawmakers throughout the legislative process. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with a few undocumented workers on what a license means to them and the risks they face without it.

Advocacy groups like Justice for Migrant Families have been working for years to push legislation that would give undocumented workers access to a driver’s license. To gain support, they held meetings where migrants could share their stories.

“It’s not your fault that you came here,” said Peter, a high school student who was brought to the United States by his mother when he was four. “Your parents brought you here to have a better life. I grew up here. Everything I know is here.”

Peter is currently part of his school’s drama club and soccer team. He said his father, who has been in the country for 15 years, risks being deported to support his extracurricular activities.

“When I see a police officer drive by or a police car, I think, 'They’re here to protect us,'” Peter said. “Instead of feeling protected I feel nervous because what’s going to happen if we get pulled over?”

That’s a common feeling for those here illegally. But why are they here?

David is one of many dairy farm workers who says Americans don’t want these jobs.

“Who wants to be able to have to work for minimum wage, working in the evening, working at any hour of the day, getting poop all over you, getting stepped on, getting hit in the face by a cow. So what happens is the farmers, they look for us to work there because we need the work,” said David.

“Our farmers tell us every year that labor is their greatest challenge. Both the cost of labor and the availability of labor,” said New York State Farm Bureau Spokesperson Steve Ammerman.

Ammerman said the Bureau couldn’t come to a unanimous decision to support the bill.

“There were some farmers that were in favor of it and truly believe that it would help their workers,” he said. “Others potentially feared it could put their farm workers at risk at being picked up by immigration and custom enforcement.”

Fear is a common theme with this issue. Farmers are afraid they could lose workers. Immigrants fear deportation. Republicans like Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard are concerned giving a license would endanger legal citizens.

“One of the groups of people we are concerned about would be terrorists and the people that have entered the country illegal that will continue to engage in illegal or unlawful conduct,” Howard said. “A very clear example of that would be drug dealers.”

David said rhetoric like that misleads what kind of people would take advantage of a license.

“I don’t see why they would have any fear of us driving because we’re not criminals,” David said. “We came here to work. That’s all. We’re just here just as any undocumented person we just don’t happen to have papers.”

Senate Republicans like Daphne Jordan have asked why immigrants choose to remain undocumented. The short answer is it’s not a choice if you entered illegally at the moment. There is proposed federal legislation (Helping Labor Personnel on Farms Act) being pushed by Rep. Chris Collins (R-Clarence) that would give a pathway to legal status for full time farm workers.

Raymond is another farm worker who treats sick cows and works alongside his three brothers.  

“We’re not doing anything bad, because we can’t get a visa to come to the United States," Raymond said. "In our country, we’re poor. In order to get a visa you have to have bank statements, own property, you have to show that you have credit cards and you have credit and that you would come just to vacation in the United States. Being here, there’s no way to get your papers.”

A license isn’t just for work and preventing deportation. It allows for migrants to have a social life, spend money in the community and for Peter and his family, getting medical care.

“When my mother was pregnant with my brothers, I knew she needed a lot of things— [like] check-ups with the doctors,” Peter said.

Peter said children of undocumented workers like him have aspirations of finding success in the community they grew up in.

“I hope one day, when I graduate from high school, college, when I have a career, I’m going to be proud to say that I am the son of an immigrant that worked hard to give me everything I had,” he said.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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