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Protestors at Michigan Capitol demand driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants

A capitol police officer keeps protestors from entering the office of Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids).
Michelle Jokisch Polo
A Capitol police officer keeps protestors from entering the office of Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids).

Demanding action on expanding access to driver’s licenses and state identification, protestors staged a sit-in at the Michigan state Capitol Tuesday afternoon.

Dozens of demonstrators carrying signs and bullhorns marched into the office of state Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids).

In April, the Senate majority leader co-sponsored a package of legislation known as the Drive Safe bills, which would guarantee access to driver’s licenses and state identification cards to any Michigan resident regardless of their immigration status.

Dolores Olivarez and four other organizers with Movimiento Cosecha, the group behind the sit-in, managed to enter Brinks' office around 3 p.m. before other protestors were removed by Capitol police. Protestors remained in the hallway for nearly two hours.

Olivarez said she feels betrayed by Brinks and other Democratic lawmakers because the bills have not advanced.

“The legislation has promised us that they were going to give us this opportunity to have a driver’s license, Olivarez said. "We feel like they have failed us. We feel that they lied to us."

“Some of us voted for those people that are sitting right now in those places and yet they did nothing like they promised," she added.

Up until 2008, Michigan law did not require a legal status to obtain a driver’s license or state I.D, requiring only proof of state residency. Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley issued an opinion in 1995 that there was no law keeping an “illegal alien” from establishing residence in Michigan.

In Dec. 2007, then Attorney General Mike Cox issued a new opinion, asserting that individuals lacking legal status could not be deemed Michigan residents. A bipartisan legislature amended Michigan's statute in the following months. The bill, signed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, mandated that only individuals with permanent legal residence in the state would be permitted to drive.

Ever since the change, Ericka Ponce has been unable to secure a driver's license. She continues to commute to and from her job in apple packaging. Ponce said she lives with a daily apprehension that she might be stopped by the police while driving, placing her at risk of deportation.

“I don’t understand why this state doesn’t appreciate the working class, essential workers like me,” Ponce said. “Driving safe and without fear is something good for the state.”

Outside Brinks' office, Ponce chanted with other demonstrators demanding to speak with Brinks.

"What do we want? Licenses! When do we want them? Now!"

The group was told repeatedly by Capitol police officers that protestors inside Brinks' office would face either an arrest or a ticket. By the time the Senate majority leader's staff left the building around 4:30 p.m., no fines had been issued. The protestors left shortly thereafter.

A request for comment from Brinks remained unanswered at the time of publishing this story.

Maria Rosario Barrios stood inside Brinks' office throughout the protest. She called the sit-in a success.

"We didn't give in. We didn't stop chanting," Barrios said. "They told us they would arrest us, but we told them we didn't have a license."

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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