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Rhode Island codifies DACA recipients’ right to obtain driver’s licenses

Law protects right even if DACA program ends, activists push to include all undocumented people

For 21-year-old Rhode Islander Rodrigo Pimentel, driving is an essential part of life. Pimentel is the only member of his family with a driver’s license, so without one, “doing anything in life would be complicated,” he said.

“Every job that I’ve had has required driving,” Pimentel said, adding that “Rhode Island is very car-dependent state. A car ride that takes 20 minutes could take an hour on the bus.”

Pimentel is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows eligible undocumented immigrants to study and work lawfully in the United States. He has fought to maintain his driver’s license by advocating for the codification of license eligibility for DACA recipients. In June, the actions of Pimentel and local advocacy groups culminated in the Rhode Island General Assembly’s vote to pass a bill to protect DACA recipients’ current ability to obtain a license — even if the DACA program were to end. This legislation comes in the wake of threats from the Trump administration to end the DACA program altogether. Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the bill into law June 18.

The legislation, to be enacted Dec. 3, was sponsored by Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-56) and Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick.

By passing a law to protect DACA recipients’ right to procure licenses, “we have given these youth a level of certainty that ensures their valuable contributions to the Ocean State will continue for years to come — no matter what happens in Washington,” McCaffrey wrote in a statement to The Herald.

Pimentel attended and spoke at the bill’s signing in June.

“It’s a common-sense issue,” he told The Herald,  explaining that licensing drivers will allow people to purchase car insurance and receive more driving instruction, leading to safer roads.

According to a Roger Williams University study, traffic fatalities and car insurance rates are lower in states where undocumented immigrants can obtain a driver’s license.

Pimentel praised Raimondo for her role in the bill’s passage, saying that  “the governor showed real leadership here by doing this, as well as the General Assembly.”

Raimondo did not respond to The Herald’s request for comment.

The bill will only effect the small portion of the undocumented community in Rhode Island who have or had DACA status.

“It’s a nice gesture,” said Carl Krueger, a staff attorney at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, who believes that the state still needs to push legislation that gives all undocumented people the opportunity to get a license. Currently, Rhode Island requires a social security number from driver’s license applicants.

Driving is not a “privilege, it’s a necessity for most people,” Krueger said, adding that anyone who can prove residency and pass a driver’s exam should be able to drive in the state.

Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented people without DACA status to apply for driver’s licenses, including Vermont and Connecticut, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ultimately, Pimentel sees the recently passed legislation as an important “first step.”

“One of the greatest things we have is storytelling,” Pimentel said. “Appealing to logic, appealing to emotion, and telling your story is a tool that you can use to orchestrate change. … You can actually change people’s minds by telling your story.”



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