State Assemblywoman Annette Quijano plans to reintroduce a bill that would provide driver’s licenses for people who live in New Jersey but cannot prove lawful presence in the United States.
Her current bill already is catching the attention of some of her constituents. Cosecha, a grassroots activist group whose name translates to “Harvest,” held an informational meeting about the legislation at the Cevicheria Mi Casa Restaurant in Elizabeth on Nov. 30.
“She’s going to adjust it,” Carlos Castaneda, who coordinated the Cosecha meeting, said, adding, “driving a car shouldn’t be a matter of legal status.”
The group is a local chapter of a larger national organization that advocates for “permanent protection, dignity, and respect for all immigrants in the United States,” according to its website.
About 20 people streamed into the restaurant around 7 p.m. as Castaneda pointed to photos of lawmakers such as Quijano and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and explained their role in the bill.
Democrats “say they are the party of the people,” Castaneda told the group in Spanish, which was translated by Nuno Pereira, another coordinator. “Now there’s no obstacle. There’s a majority in the Senate and a majority in the Assembly.”
The original bill died in committee in 2015, but gained considerable media attention and some outcry then.
Those who attended last week’s Cosecha meeting recalled how public opinion began to sway two years ago against the bill — and throughout the Legislature — because of terrorist attacks like those two years ago in San Bernardino, Calif. Fourteen people were killed there and 22 wounded by a Chicago-born man of Pakistani descent and his wife, a Pakistani immigrant.
The Legislature was controlled by Democrats two years ago, but Gov. Chris Christie said he would veto the bill. Quijano, a Democrat, plans to reintroduce it in January after Gov.-elect Phil Murphy takes office. The new language of the bill is still being determined.
“We all benefit from having people on the road who are registered and insured,” Quijano said in a statement. “A serious car accident with an uninsured driver can make a bad situation worse. Ensuring that all New Jersey drivers are knowledgeable of traffic laws, have been tested for driving ability and are insured can help reduce fatal road accidents and decrease the number of uninsured motorists that flee from accident scenes.
Personal information collected of those applying for driver’s licenses would not be considered a public record under this bill. Under current law, such information is not disclosed to any federal, state or local government agencies without probable cause or a warrant.
Quijano said more than 500,000 undocumented residents live in the state. Research shows that unlicensed drivers are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash and nearly 10 times more likely to leave the scene of an accident, she said.
Mario, an attendee who came to the United States from Mexico in 2005 — and did not want his last name used out of fear his immigration status would be made public — does not have legal status. He said he drives without a license to get to work on time around 3 a.m.
“I’m already driving,” he said Mario. “I have to. If I come late, I’ll get fired. … This happened to me before. I called a taxi and it didn’t come.”
Mario is employed in the engineering industry and working a unionized job to support his wife and child, he said.
“We pay taxes, but we have nothing to help because I have no papers,” Mario said. “We’re working hard, but we’re always in the dark.”
The bill had its dissenters in 2015. Assembly Republicans Holly Schepisi and David Russo, who both represent parts of Bergen County, voted against the measure in the Homeland Security Committee.
While Schepisi said she was open to the idea of providing driver’s licenses to those who couldn’t provide documentation showing they lived here legally, she was concerned that doing so would “lessen the standard” for state licenses. The legislation could make it difficult for all residents in the state to use their identification for flying domestically, open bank accounts or enter federal buildings.
“Additionally, there was simultaneous legislation moving through another separate committee which would automatically register to vote anyone who received a driver’s license,” Schepisi said in a Nov. 29 email. “There was no testimony provided as to what protections would be enacted to ensure that undocumented persons weren’t automatically registered to vote upon receipt of their licenses, which were almost identical to the traditional licenses.”
Russo did not respond to a request for comment.
Quijano said she will meet with members of Murphy’s transition team to craft a bill that addresses the needs and concerns of all involved. During a gubernatorial debate, Murphy said he’d consider making New Jersey a “sanctuary state” to protect immigrants from deportation.
“I look forward to finally having a partner in the governor’s office who understands the importance of solving this critical issue,” said Quijano in a statement. “We will work together to ensure that we write the best legislation for the people of New Jersey.”