NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On Wednesday, November 5, the city's Latino community came out in full force to attend a City Council hearing on a resolution calling on New Jersey's government to issue "driving privilege cards" to undocumented residents.
The massive turnout, which rivaled the largest crowds ever to attend a New Brunswick City Council meeting, was organized by Faith in New Jersey, a multi-racial and multi-faith network working to advance a "social justice agenda."
Ten states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have already passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to drive legally and have seen positive results, with a higher percentage of insured and licensed drivers on the road.
New Jersey is not one of them but a bill currently pending in the state legislature could change that.
The Hub City has the second-highest Mexican population in New Jersey, meaning a change in the policy on driver's license could have a tremendous impact on the city. Only Passaic has a greater concentration of Mexicans.
New Brunswick has previously fought for immigrants rights by being the 4th city in NJ to support the DREAM Act, which was eventually adopted and signed by Governor Christie.
New Brunswick's City Council approved the resolution 5-0, making the city the second municipality in New Jersey to call on the state to take action. Camden's City Council previously passed a similar resolution.
Council President Rebecca Escobar clarified that, while this would be a step forward, the state still must take action on the bills, which will also require the Governor's signature.
"This is a state level issue, it's not a city issue. But what we're trying to say is we support the efforts."
But Escobar said that the City Council's resolution made it more likely for legislators to push forward Senate and Assembly bills (S1696/A2135) that could eventually allow undocumented residents to apply for driving privileges.
Both bills were introduced earlier this year, and have been referred to the Transportation Committees in each house of the legislature, where they have not yet been scheduled for hearings.
Supporters of the bills claim that it would only help to provide documentation for immigrants by making the roads safer and by making people more accountable.
Allowing a legal pathway to obtaining driving privileges could also reduce crime, they argue, in the form of hit and run crashes, and fraudulent acquisition of drivers licenses.
Opponents claim that immigrants shouldn't be here in the first place and say incentives to work illegally or give additional rights to them will only encourage further immigration.
Both sides agree that ignoring the impact of immigrants will not make them disappear.
There are between 250,000 and 550,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, and about 8.6% of the states workforce is undocumented according to New Jersey Policy Perspectives, a thinktank that supports the driving privelege card legislation.
"We always want to get to public transportation when we can," said Councilman John Anderson before casting his vote. "But if you have to have a license, obviously we'll support you for that."
Anderson encouraged residents to report any problems with taxi cab services, which residents said can sometimes put residents in compromising positions.
Several members of the community who could not fluently express themselves in English provided transcripts to the council members and proceeded to argue for the resolution in Spanish. Escobar is bilingual and spoke in both languages.
Undocumented and documented immigrants alike spoke in favor of the change, which they said would improve their economic standing and their sense of safety.
"We don't want to be illegal here. We don't choose to be illegal," said Monica Palacios, adding that her fellow immigrants came to New Jersey because their home countries are very poor, and they hope to provide better lives for their children here.
Palacios said she would have been promoted to general manager at her restaurant job, if not for the lack of a license.
Others speakers said the inability to drive legally severely limited their employment options geographically, and negatively affected their families, and sometimes detained by federal authorities for driving without licenses.
"I was blessed to find a religious community here in the city which embraced me and supported me," said Juan Diaz, a 48-year-old Franklin Township resident who immigrated from the town of Atlixco in Puebla, Mexico more than two decades ago.
Diaz said he is very proud that his four children were born in the United States, where he started a small business.
Yet, he says his small business has been "drastically limited" by his inability to obtain a driver's license, and was once detained by the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] for driving without one.
"The police transferred me to ICE and I was detained for over 3 months," said Diaz. "My family sufferred economically and emotionally as I am the one who provides for my kids."
Another immigrant from Atlixco, 36-year-old Sara Vidal Segundo, told the Council her lack of a license made it difficult to take care of her youngest son, who was diagnosed with partial paralysis, a heart condition, and digestive problems at birth.
"The lack of a driver's license made it very hard, time consuming and expensive to make it to his appoitnments. He has to visit specialist in Metuchen, Plainfield and North Brunswick and the taxi rates to other cities were unaffordable for my family," she said.
Robert Solano, a 27-year resident of New Brunswick and leader of several soccer organizations, claims that driving priveleges would be a tremendous help to individuals who currently cannot drive a vehicle and may have to rely on taxi services.
"Do the right thing for the people that pay rent, mortgages, and taxes," said Solano, who claimed that it would only help the success of immigrants and the city.
By supporting this resolution, the bill may gain traction on state level for the first time since it was initially proposed in 2006. That legislation had failed in New Jersey under Governor Corzine.