Immigrants and their advocates plan to march through a cluster of Rhode Island cities this weekend to push state leaders to allow driver’s licenses for people living in the country illegally.
But in a move that reflects the fragility of their cause during a national backlash against illegal immigration, they’re avoiding the places where they need the most support: predominantly white suburbs home to the elected representatives who dominate the Legislature.
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The Coalition for Safer Rhodes originally planned an unprecedented days long march across the smallest state. It would have been modeled after farm labor leader Cesar Chavez’s 1966 pilgrimage across California’s Central Valley. The group has now switched strategies, citing safety concerns after experiencing hostility and name-calling while passing out fliers in the suburbs and knocking on doors.
“We didn’t want our people to be harassed,” said march organizer Gaspar Espinoza, who expects at least 300 people to join the walk. “We had wanted to do this in rural Rhode Island and use temples of faith as stations, but a lot of our friends said, `Why expose people?”’
Twelve states, including neighboring Connecticut, now grant driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally. Many have provisions that prevent the special licenses from being used for anything except for driving. Advocates say along with improving immigrants’ lives, the laws improve road safety by requiring everyone to pass a driving test and get insurance. Opponents say they encourage more illegal immigration.
Except for Republican-led Nevada and Utah, most of the states that enacted the laws are run by Democrats. Democrats control both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly, but after years of debate, legislative leaders have repeatedly blocked driver’s license bills from moving to a vote.
“My opinion is the electorate across the state, the citizens of the state, are not in support of it,” Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said in May, in remarks that effectively halted the debate until lawmakers reconvene next year. “So we’re going to respect what the majority of the citizens in the state want to do.”
Estimates released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that in 2014 there were about 30,000 immigrants in Rhode Island illegally. Guatemalans were the largest group, followed by Dominicans and Cape Verdeans.
But most of the immigrants are concentrated in Providence and a handful of surrounding cities. Their statewide political power doesn’t come close to matching their population.
Frustrated by political inaction, activists began crafting a plan to explain their cause to suburbanites who have little personal interaction with immigrant families. They instead became wary of increasing opposition at a time when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who easily won the April primary, is appealing to many white voters with his promises to halt illegal immigration.
Republican state Rep. Doreen Costa, a Trump delegate who helped preside over the driver’s license legislative hearings as vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said most people in Rhode Island “just don’t think illegals should be granted driver’s licenses, plain and simple.”
“If they want to march across the state, God bless them. But the problem is they don’t have the support,” Costa said. “They don’t have the support in the General Assembly. They don’t have the support in the entire state.”
The North Kingstown resident said she didn’t think people outside of Providence would be receptive to marchers, but she doesn’t think they would be confrontational, either.
Espinoza isn’t willing to take the risk of finding out. The activist said he was asking for signatures to support a driver’s license bill outside a Cranston mall, not far from Providence, when two women swore at him and told him he doesn’t belong in the United States. Espinoza, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Navy veteran, had fled with his family from Nicaragua’s political turmoil in the 1980s.
Another activist, Sabine Adrian, said she was canvassing with two other women in North Providence this year when a shopper began yelling and angrily pushed a grocery cart at them.
“We just had some nasty experiences, so we thought it would be safer for the people in the march to stay closer to where folks are affected,” Adrian said.
The 5-mile march is scheduled to begin 11 a.m. Sunday in a park in Central Falls. It continues through Pawtucket and into Providence, past the Rhode Island State House and ending at the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.