Estefana, an undocumented woman living in Central Falls, said that getting a driver’s privilege card in July will make taking care of her children’s medical visits much easier. Photo by Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current
CENTRAL FALLS – Sitting in a darkened room at a food pantry, dressed in a thick, black winter coat, Estefana gave voice to her greatest fear.
“If I’m stopped by police, they’ll take away my children,” Estefana, an undocumented immigrant from Hidalgo, Mexico, said in Spanish.
“I don’t want that. That’s why I don’t drive.”
Estefana requested that Rhode Island Current only use her first name because she worries about her immigration status. The fear makes moving around difficult for the stay-at-home mother of three children, ages 3 to 12. She said her middle child has a gastrointestinal ailment that requires frequent visits to clinics and doctors in Providence and Warwick. She relies on an informal taxi driver who is not always available to make the trips while her husband is away at work.
On July 1, 2023, the couple expects that to change when a law signed by Gov. Dan McKee in 2022 goes into effect, allowing undocumented Rhode Islanders to obtain a driver privilege card from the state. The card, though identical to a non-REAL ID compliant driver’s license, would function the same as a traditional license but is not usable for federal or state identification or voting. They can be used to drive in any part of the mainland United States.
“I will be in line [at the Department of Motor Vehicles] that very day,” she said. “We’re already saving up for a vehicle and I am looking for someone to teach me how to drive.”
Those seeking licenses are not the only ones preparing for the move. Community activists and the Department of Revenue — which oversees the Department of Motor Vehicles — are busy preparing logistics and informing those who will gain legal access to driving.
“This is a paradigm shift in Rhode Island that I think not only us but any immigrant community would benefit from,” said Muraina Akinfolarin, executive director of OASIS International, Inc., a South Providence social services organization serving African Immigrant and low-income communities. “That’s the joy of it. You can drive. You can do all the things you need to do. You can settle yourself in this new environment.”
Under the law, those 16 and older — an estimated 27,000 undocumented immigrants living in Rhode Island, according to the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University — will be able to obtain the license as long as they filed tax returns as a state resident the preceding year or filed as a dependent under someone else.
They will also be required to provide two documents proving their identity (foreign passport, consular ID, valid driver’s license from another state, etc.) and two documents proving residency (such as a utility bill, personal check, bank statement, etc.).
Obstacles include cost
One question hanging over the process is how many will apply for a card come July. That’s difficult to determine, said Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.
“We don’t know how many undocumented people there might be applying for a license,” she said. “One of the important things to keep in mind also is that not every undocumented person will have everything they need come July 1.”
Betancur said while not foolproof, a good proxy may be the number of Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) — a number issued by the Internal Revenue Service to those who do not qualify for a Social Security number.
“We can only do an estimate of the number of undocumented,” she said. Betancur added that fear of deportation often prevents undocumented people from availing themselves of services they qualify for.
“Outside the census, we don’t count undocumented people because it’s unsafe for them to be in the open,” Betancur said. “That’s the whole thing with the driver privilege cards. It makes it safer for them and all Rhode Islanders.”
If I’m stopped by police, they’ll take away my children. I don’t want that. That’s why I don’t drive.
– Estefana, an undocumented immigrant from Hidalgo, Mexico
According to the Internal Revenue Service, “there were 6,722 tax returns filed using an ITIN in the primary, secondary, or dependent position on federal taxpayer return for 2022” in Rhode Island. They added that the number does not confirm a person’s immigration status.
The Rhode Island Department of Revenue declined to comment on how many cards they expect to issue. However, Betancur said the department has spoken with LPI and the Immigrant Coalition to come up with an estimate.
One barrier for many to obtaining the cards may be financial, as most undocumented people work low-paying jobs.
“I can assure that most undocumented people make under the state average of $42,000 a year,” Betancur said.
Getting the message out
Community organizations said they are working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate their constituents on what comes with the cards and what is necessary to obtain them.
“We are a voice in our community,” Akinfolarin, the executive director of OASIS International, said. “The leaders will take that information and translate it to the people or the churches or the mosque.”
One such forum took place on Feb. 23 at Central Falls High School. Advocates said they are planning more forums, though they declined to give more details, citing security concerns. They are also working with state agencies to act as trusted messengers, people and organizations with social capital among marginalized groups who can deliver information in the appropriate language for their respective communities.
Betancur said outreach efforts are critical to making sure all those who can obtain the cards do and all those legally tasked with facilitating that are aware of their duties when the time comes.
“In terms of government, this very large department that everybody uses will see an influx of individuals,” she said. “We need to be sure that conversation about the process is very clear.”
Estefana said the process has been made clear to her on multiple occasions. She said that she and her husband also understand the end game: the opportunity to move around with slightly less worry about what may come.
“It’s worth it for us to buy a car,” she said. “This will benefit many people who don’t drive due to fear.”
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