N.H. Advocates: Driver's Licenses Would Improve Relations Between Undocumented Immigrants And Police
A bill in the New Hampshire State House that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license faces an uphill battle this year.
Immigration advocates say the legislation is key to improving relationships they’ve been building with police chiefs across the state’s Southern tier.
Aloisio Costa spends a lot of time doing what pastors do: praying, reading his Bible, writing sermons, attending to the needs of his church.
He leads the Assembly of God Bethel church in Nashua’s growing Brazilian community. Costa said that pastors in immigrant communities get involved in more than just the spiritual lives of their congregations.
“They’re mechanics, they’re lawyers, they’re psychologists,” he said. "They’re parents — they’re mother, father, whatever. We have to reinvent ourselves every time there’s a different need.”
That’s especially true for people who may be undocumented, don’t speak English or don’t have the same support structures they had back in their home countries, and also when it comes to their relationship with police.
“I need to be that bridge, even if that bridge doesn’t exist,” said Costa. “I need to fight as much as I can to approach the police, and the community needs, so they can understand their needs.”
Starting last year, Costa, along with other pastors and immigration advocates, set up meetings with police chiefs from Nashua, Salem, Hollis, Hudson, and Merrimack, where one advocate, Leuson Veloz, described his family’s immigration story.
“My father left Brazil. I was 13 years old. So from 13 years old to 16, I didn’t have my father,” he said.
An officer asked, “Because he was here?”
“He was here, working like crazy.”
At each meeting, community members talked about how their experience shapes their perspective of the police, and explained the reasons why some people are afraid of law enforcement.
“That was what really stood out for me, that I was unaware of. I’d never had those conversations,” said Hudson Police Chief Bill Avery. He and other members of his command staff sat down with Costa and others last September.
Avery says he wants all people, regardless of legal status, to feel safe calling his department if they’re a victim of a crime or they need other help.
That wasn’t happening, because the town has had a bad reputation among New Hampshire’s immigrant community for many years.
One reason: for years, the Hudson Police Department partnered with immigration authorities and had two police officers who could participate in immigration enforcement.
That participation ended around 2011. But Avery says that it put up barriers.
“I can’t put a number on how many times that there were victims out there that just simply didn’t want to come to this building because they were afraid we would notify immigration even though they were victims,” Avery said.
Costa, the pastor, said the fact that Avery and other police chiefs want to build relationships with immigrant communities is necessary to move forward.
As a former police officer back in Brazil, Costa said it’s easy for him to talk with police here.
“I don’t get afraid,” he said. “I know exactly what the role is. I respect them for what they do, and the position they have to hold. But they can’t go beyond that.”
There’s one thing in particular that would give people peace of mind, he said: a driver’s license. Costa said that form of ID would help make people more willing to speak up even in situations such as domestic violence.
“You tolerate abuses, little violence at home, because you don't want to call police,” Costa said.
That fear, advocates told police, exists on the roads too, when someone who’s undocumented gets pulled over. Because they’re not eligible, they don’t have a driver’s license on them. That minor motor vehicle infraction can have major consequences when ICE becomes involved.
“We have seen many people get deported because their only infraction was to drive without a driver’s license,” said Bruno Soares, an advocate who organized the 2020 meetings.
Soares is pushing the police chiefs to support legislation that would provide driver’s licenses for undocumented people. Advocates estimate there are about 15,000 undocumented immigrants in New Hampshire, most of them in the southern tier.
“This area has a lot of undocumented people,” said Avery. “The majority — high majority — of those people that are undocumented, are hardworking, want to support their families, (but) are out there every day driving illegally.”
The first time that happens, it’s a fine. The second time, it’s a misdemeanor, which means a court appearance. That’s where ICE shows up, looking for those kinds of cases.
“And if you choose not to go to court because you fear that ICE is going to be there waiting for you, now they're going to put a warrant out for your arrest," Avery said. “So there's all kinds of repercussions that come out of a stop.”
The proposed legislation would solve that problem. But the bill faces an uphill battle in the State House this year. The transportation committee voted 10 to 9 along party lines, that the full House not pass it.
“We’re talking about people who are illegal or undocumented, and I don’t feel they have that right or privilege,” said Rep. Ted Gorski, a Republican from Bedford, at a hearing earlier this month.
But Avery said the legislation would benefit police as well as immigrants. Patrol officers feel safer when they can immediately verify someone’s identity; and the roads would be safer because the driver had to pass a driving test. (Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws like this in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
Avery says if his officers stop someone who’s driving without a license, run their name through the system, and see that ICE has a detainer for that individual because they’ve committed a violent offense, they will hold them for immigration authorities.
“I have no patience for that in my community,” he said. And nothing in the legislation would protect individuals from that.
“Those are normally very violent offenses that will come into play if they’re here undocumented,” he said. “We're not calling ICE just because this gentleman is out, trying to work hard and you get caught driving without a license. It’s simply not happening.”
Immigration advocate Eva Castillo has been meeting with police across the state for nearly two decades. She’s never heard a police chief talk like that. But now, she says, there’s a new generation of police leadership.
“There is more willingness to work together. There's more willingness to solve issues. The police departments, I think, overall are a lot more aware of the importance of building community,” she said.
Two police chiefs testified in favor of the bill at a hearing on March 5, including Michael Carignan from Nashua.
“If they could have that license and get to and from work, they’re much more comfortable talking to us,” he said. “If they do commit a motor vehicle violation, they get stopped, they get a ticket, they get a fine, just like everybody else."
“With that comfort comes the trust in law enforcement that we’re there to help,” Carignan said.
Castillo said she cried when she heard police chiefs testify in favor of the bill. No chief did that two years ago, when a similar bill was proposed. Castillo and other advocates felt they didn’t have a strong enough relationship to ask for their support.
“We’ve come a long way," she said. "When I heard them talk, I said, ‘Wow, to think I used to be so afraid of them,’”
Castillo says she’ll continue pushing for the new law, because she knows others are still afraid.