When Immigrants and Their Advocates Drive the Debate

Activism matters. Direct action can change minds and create environments that are ripe for change. That, as much as anything else, is the lesson that should be taken from the successful effort in New Jersey to win driving privileges for undocumented residents.

Governor Phil Murphy, a progressive Democrat, signed legislation in December creating a limited driver’s license that grants driving privileges to undocumented residents and others with documentation issues, including those living on the streets and women fleeing abusive relationships who may lack permanent residences. 

While Murphy deserves credit, the legislation—which had been proposed in Trenton for more than a decade—would not have been possible without a seismic shift in public perception created by the activists working in immigrant neighborhoods and challenging the perceptions of the state’s political class.

What began as a campaign to let undocumented immigrants have driver’s licenses can turn into a movement to create some form of “legal status for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.”

Groups like Movimiento CosechaLet’s Drive NJ, and the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice were instrumental in shifting public perception, which made a nearly 180-degree shift over the last ten years. The effort relied on both street actions and lobbying of state officials, which took place in parallel, creating an inside-outside model that both moved the public and created the kind of moral momentum needed to get the state legislature to act.

Vera Parra, communications director for Cosecha, said the dual-model allowed the various groups to play to their strengths with Cosecha focusing on applying direct pressure and others mixing protest with lobbying efforts.

Groups like Let’s Drive and the Alliance led on the specific “policy work and making sure that the legislation was as strong as it could be,” Parra says in an interview with The Progressive. Those groups took on “a role [Cosecha] could never have played because we were pushing the primary sponsor” through sit-ins and other direct actions.

The driver’s license debate in New Jersey goes back more than a decade, through three governors and three Presidents. Early on, public opinion was very much against granting licenses to those without legal authorization to be in the country. 

A March 2009 poll offers a snapshot of how immigrants were viewed in the state as President Barack Obama took office. It found that Garden State voters were overwhelmingly opposed to expanding driving privileges and to allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges, with four in ten respondents saying undocumented students shouldn’t even be allowed to attend New Jersey schools. 

Just four years later, thanks to the aggressive campaigning and activism of young immigrant students, former Governor Chris Christie, a conservative Republican with presidential ambitions, signed the Tuition Equality into law, which gave immigrant students who graduated from New Jersey high schools access to in-state tuition but not state aid.

The tide was turning on immigration issues in New Jersey, though other pressing issues were blocked by Christie’s presence in the statehouse. So activists focused on local communities, winning promises from many local and county governments not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, the creation of local IDs, and expanded wage-theft protections.


Since taking office in January 2018, Murphy has signed bills granting access to state higher education aid to undocumented students and driving privileges to all residents, while also appointing an attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, who has challenged the Trump Administration’s public charge rule and issued a directive to prevent local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with ICE. Those contracts essentially deputized county sheriffs’ officers, jail guards, and investigators as de facto ICE agents.

None of this could have happened without the concerted efforts of activists and community members, who continued to build local relationships and worked at “tilling the soil,” says Johanna Calle, executive director of the N.J. Alliance for Immigrant Justice, which is a partner in the Let’s Drive campaign. 

Local IDs were a central part of their efforts, Calle says, because they spent “a lot of time talking to folks who were U.S. citizens about the need for IDs, people who are coming back from the reentry community who are coming back from incarceration; folks who are homeless, survivors of domestic violence.”

The alternative was not to drive—but then they faced difficulties getting to work and taking care of their families.

“I mean, we were talking to all those groups back and forth, because we understood how important it was for us to build those kinds of relationships and to understand exactly what was going on in the ground,” Calle says. This was especially true because “Democratic legislators sort of kept saying, ‘Well, we can’t do it because (Christie’s) here. He’s not going to sign it. We’re not going to move legislation that he is going to veto anyway.’ ”

Carlos E. Rojas Rodriguez, who worked as a community organizer during the driver’s license push and recently took over as Bernie Sanders’ Latinx Constituency Organizer in Iowa, says this political resistance made it imperative that the people who are directly affected be on the front lines of the fight.

“To me, [the change in public opinion] started happening when we actually were able to create a movement that was led by immigrant parents and workers and families independent of whether we were able to change the laws or not,” he says, adding that this “exposed the crisis.” 


For decades, Rodriguez notes, “immigrants have been driving with fear of being pulled over and being fined, given tickets and having to go to court, and in some cases being identified us undocumented and having to face deportation.” 

The alternative was not to drive—but then they faced difficulties getting to work and taking care of their families. They became vulnerable to exploitation from transportation companies that charged exorbitant rates or were connected to their employers.

“Every day they had to make a choice,” he explains. “Do I risk driving without a license, possibly being separated from my family? Or do I not drive and live a very limited lifestyle?”

By sharing the stories of people who were directly affected, Rodriguez says, proponents of the driver’s license bill were “able to push a lot of the legislators to do what they didn’t want to do for a long time.”

The groups doubled down and organized at the local level, getting cities and counties to pass resolutions of support for the licenses. Even with the inertia in Trenton, Calle says, they decided that licenses were “still going to be a priority, and we’re going to spend a lot of time building the groundwork at the local and county level.” 

According to Parra, what began as a campaign to let undocumented immigrants have driver’s licenses can turn into a movement to create some form of “legal status for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.” As she puts it, “What’s needed is to build a strong enough popular movement that can force this.”

The Trump presidency makes building support at the local angle especially important, because local victories build confidence and chip away at the anti-immigrant attitude that still pervades many areas.

“Maybe, in another universe where Trump hadn’t been elected, and the politics of this country hadn’t taken such a nativist turn, we would be able to organize the immigrant community and the broader rights movement around a campaign of permanent protection and around legal status,” Parra says. “In this longer term fight, the only way to really build up people’s confidence and our ability to win something is if we come together and organize through these local campaigns.

“It was very clear that this was never just about a driver’s license. It’s about building for a longer fight.”

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