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Undocumented immigrants and allies marched in Lansing for right to a license

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Marchers arrive in Lansing after walking for five days from Grand Rapids (see more photos in gallery above)

The march for undocumented immigrants gaining the right to have a driver’s license came to the state’s capitol building Tuesday afternoon, after a five-day pilgrimage.

Starting in Grand Rapids on Friday, a group from the Cosecha Michigan walked to Lansing to bring awareness of those undocumented immigrants without a valid state driver’s license. More than 100 people stood in front of the Capitol building, singing and chanting in both English and Spanish.

“It’s a human right that we should be able to move free without being worried about being pulled over because I’m brown,” said Ofelia Martinez, of Detroit.

She said she is a U.S. Citizen, but her ancestors are immigrants and supports this notion. Having a valid driver’s license is more than just the ability to drive, she said, it’s about every day responsibilities.

“To get your lights turned on, to be able to get your plates, your car registration, your insurance and to identify yourself,” Martinez said. “Some people can’t even pick up their kids from school because they don’t have an ID.”

To her, not allowing undocumented immigrants to have a license goes beyond the restriction at the surface.

“It’s a little bit [of] discrimination, no,” she asked rhetorically. “Because they’re not citizens here, it targets them. So right away, if someone doesn’t have a license, it’s one of the first things police think is that they’re undocumented to be here.”

Michigan stopped the practice of allowing undocumented immigrants to get a license in 2008 after former Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion in 2007 saying otherwise. Twelve other states; California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Washington, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have passed legislation to allow for a driver’s license or other driving permit.

In 2017, a bi-partisan effort was introduced in the Michigan House by Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, that would have brought the permit back. That legislation stalled, and now, John Whetstone, Press Secretary for Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, said that “won’t be seeing any action.”

Meanwhile, Chang, remains a bit more optimistic.

“It is critical immigrant families have the freedom to move safely and legally throughout their city, whether they are going to work, picking a child up from school, or attending a religious service,” Chang said via a statement. “I am proud to have introduced a bi-partisan plan to create an opportunity for immigrants to receive a driver’s license in Michigan; other states have implemented this common-sense solution, and it is time Michigan joins them to provide families the support they need as they help drive our state’s economy forward.”

Criticism of this idea stems from the notion that undocumented immigrants are in the United States illegally, and shouldn’t have the option to get a license. Maritinez said she wants to give everyone a history lesson.

“Well no one was here legally from the beginning, my ancestors were on this continent before the white man came,” she said. “So, people forget that and it’s an ignorance as a whole country that we have that we think we own something that wasn’t.”

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s Spokesperson Fred Woodhams said they stand behind Michigan’s current law that states a driver’s license can only be provided to those who can prove citizenship.

“We have to be able to prove that they are who they say they are,” Woodhams said.

The two candidates running for Johnson’s seat in November, agree. Republican Candidate for Secretary of State Mary Treder Lang and Democratic Candidate Jocelyn Benson both issued similar statements on the matter.

“Mary Treder Lang strongly supports current law which requires proof of legal residence to obtain a driver’s license in the state of Michigan,” Ian Barber, Campaign Manager for Treder Lang, said.

"Current law prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses, and Jocelyn Benson has no interest in changing the law,” Liz Boyd, Campaign Spokesperson for Benson, said. “Her focus is on implementing a 30-minute guarantee for service at branch offices; a ban on fee increases; election security; protecting voting rights and increasing transparency and ethics.”

Martinez said after the march in Lansing, the Michigan chapter of the national organization Cosecha, has had discussions about a potential national march, but no concrete plans have been made.