Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has run out of time to carry out an ambitious promise she made on the campaign trail to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Raimondo signed a poster-sized pledge at a church event in 2014, promising an executive order within her first year in office that would allow residents to get driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status.
As her first year in office comes to a close, the Democrat says she remains committed to the licenses but is leaving the decision to state lawmakers who have so far been reluctant to wade into the issue.
“Let’s see if we can get it done there first,” Raimondo said of the Rhode Island General Assembly, which begins its annual session this week.
Eliseo Pastor is among many disappointed immigrants who have been paying close attention.
“Gina Raimondo said she’d pass a reform,” said the 26-year-old restaurant worker who moved to Providence from Guatemala eight years ago. “The people want her to fulfill it.”
Pastor cannot vote. He cannot drive, either, at least not legally.
He used to take a 90-minute bus ride to his job at an upscale Italian restaurant. He asked a family member for help, agreeing to pay to register and insure a car that Pastor could drive up and down Interstate 95 each day.
Driving cut his commute to 25 minutes. But his fear of being pulled over and deported never lets up.
“I don’t want them to stop me,” he said of police. “It’s a fear I have every day.”
Rhode Island has the largest concentration of Guatemalans in the U.S., many of whom cannot get a license because they don’t have legal U.S. residency and Social Security numbers.
Some temporary work agencies have filled the void by shuttling immigrants in vans to jobs at factories and seafood processing plants. Workers say not being able to drive on their own leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
“If you don’t have a license, you have to put up with a lot of abuse,” said Domingo Moreno, who also moved to the state from Guatemala eight years ago.
Most stressful to Moreno is explaining to his son why he can’t get to certain extracurricular activities.
“Those who suffer most are the kids,” Moreno said. “And these kids are the future of this state.”
Studies by the Pew Research Center and Migration Policy Institute estimate that more than 30,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Rhode Island, about 3 percent of the total population. Nearly half are from Guatemala.
Raimondo has voiced support for allowing everyone to get driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status since she launched her gubernatorial campaign two years ago. She describes it as a public safety measure and cites similar programs in 12 states including neighboring Connecticut and nearby Vermont. The newest laws, in Delaware and Hawaii, took effect last week. Massachusetts is also considering one.
“There’s lots of people driving on the roads who don’t have licenses,” she said. “They’re still going to work, still going to school. I want them to get a license and insurance so they’re driving safely. Many of these people are longtime Rhode Island residents who’ve been paying taxes for a long time.”
Top legislators, also Democrats who hold a supermajority in both chambers, have resisted, allowing several bills to create special driving privilege cards languish. Opponents characterized the proposals as a magnet that would draw more illegal immigration to the state. Proponents, including Pastor and Moreno, plan to march to the statehouse to greet lawmakers when they arrive for their new session.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat, said there was much controversy but no consensus reached last year. She is open to reconsidering a bill.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, doesn’t want to opine on the issue before lawmakers hold public hearings, but he has made clear to Raimondo she should not use an executive order.
“I do believe it’s a policy decision that’s the prerogative of the General Assembly and it should go through the legislative process,” Mattiello said.