Organizer Elisa Huapilla speaks to the crowd at a news conference in Clearwater. The group, Latino Immigrants of Clearwater, wants to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
CLEARWATER – Allowing everyone to be able to obtain a driver’s license would make our roads safer and less harrowing due to those who are driving without a license, said dozens of members of Latino Immigrants of Clearwater at a news conference June 9.
Organizer Elisa Huapilla said thousands of people in Pinellas County are suffering hardship because they are not allowed to have a driver’s license due to their undocumented status.
“Public transportation just isn’t reliable in Pinellas County for the simplest of things,” she said. “Going to the store or taking the children to the doctor, taking the bus in most cases just isn’t an option. We will continue to fight so these people can someday get a license.”
Businessman Juan Cruz said allowing people to get driver’s licenses will have a major impact on safety in the county.
“It will definitely make things safer on the streets,” he said. “It will also help the police because a driver’s license is a good form of identification. Unlike people who are driving illegally, those with licenses will be required to learn the rules of the road and will be required to take a test to show they know what they are doing. Let’s drive Florida forward.”
With that last remark the crowd, which had gathered around, broke into applause and waved their signs with slogans such as “Floridians deserve safe roads.”
Another businessman, Felix Mendoza, said the campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses must continue.
“We’re going to fight,” he said. “Families who are driving without licenses are putting themselves in danger. They are driving afraid and know that if they get stopped by the police for the smallest of infractions, they could get deported. Allowing them to get licenses would keep everyone safe.”
One theme that came up over and over again was the inadequate bus system in Pinellas County. People spoke of having to wait long intervals for buses in the rain and hot sun. Dave Kovar, who is part of an environmental group, which supports better public transportation, reminded the crowd that they can help themselves by supporting the Greenlight Pinellas campaign.
“Taxes in this county have been frozen for some time, yet costs continue to go up,” he said. “If we don’t support Greenlight Pinellas campaign, then the bus company will have no alternative but to shut down some buses. They will start with the feeder routes, then without them, the middle buses will have to go; then of course the main line buses will end. There are people in this county who would be glad to see that happen.”
Kovar said the way to prevent that is to mobilize all the voters and support Greenlight Pinellas, which would see a 1-cent sales tax increase in the county, all of which would go toward better public transportation.
“That would mean there will be more buses running, in the evenings and weekends and during the day. They would come more frequently, and you would not have to wait as long in the rain or the heat. Better service means you would be in a position to get better paying jobs. Vote yes in the referendum on Nov. 4.”
Seminole Councilor Patricia Plantamura also is a supporter of the driver’s license initiative and agreed it is a matter of public safety.
“It means more than that,” she said. “As our immigrants are being given more access to higher learning, we have a right to ask, what point is it to allow an immigrant to go to a university if they have no way of getting there?”
An organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Paola Calva Florido, lamented the fact that a bill, which would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, did not pass the Florida Legislature in this session.
“We have to make this a year of public pressure,” she said. “We have to make our politicians understand that this is not an immigrant issue, it is not a Mexican issue, and it is not a Hispanic issue. It is a human issue. We’ve all heard stories of human need as it pertains to getting a driver’s license.”
Huapilla reminded the crowd that they can make a change in the law despite what happened this year.
“The November election for the Florida Legislature gives advocates an opportunity to inch towards their goal since they can be voting for politicians who can push the issue,” she said. “For this reason, a grassroots movement will begin to propel Latinos to get out to vote and hopefully set an example for other communities to form their own movement in their own counties to advocate for driver’s licenses for everyone.”