‘What was left behind was a broken family’

Undocumented Michiganders describe the toll of life without driver licenses

By: - September 21, 2021 4:51 am

Nelly Fuentes

Nelly Fuentes remembers the moment her entire life changed.

She remembers how cold it was that morning in February 2008. How her husband’s voice shook when he told her he had been pulled over while driving home from work.

“That’s when my nightmare began,” said Fuentes, who lives in Southwest Michigan. “Anyone who’s undocumented knows what being pulled over means.”

Fuentes’ husband, who was undocumented, was deported to Mexico three weeks after he was pulled over. She has not seen him since.

“We lost him in every way that a person can be lost,” Fuentes said of her husband, the man she had known since childhood and with whom she expected to grow old. “When he arrived in Mexico, he lost himself in grief. What was left behind was definitely a broken family. I lost my best friend, the father of my children, the love of my life, my life partner. My children lost their father.”

Fuentes, a leader of the Drive Michigan Forward coalition and an organizer with We The People Michigan, was one of a long list of people expected to testify at a House hearing last week on two bills that would restore the ability of undocumented Michiganders, among others, to access driver licenses and state identification. House Bills 4835 and 4836, introduced by state Reps. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) and Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), respectively, make up the Drive SAFE legislation, which stands for safety, access, freedom, and the economy.

What was left behind was definitely a broken family. I lost my best friend, the father of my children, the love of my life, my life partner.

– Nelly Fuentes, a leader of Drive Michigan Forward

But just hours before the hearing was slated to begin, it was canceled at the request of House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare). Wentworth spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro wrote in an email last week that “several members reached out to the speaker with concerns, so he asked Rep. [Jim] Lilly (R-Park Twp.) not to hold the hearing” for the Michigan House Rules and Competitiveness Committee. 

When asked what concerns the members had, he wrote that they “raised issues with both the policy and the need to focus on finalizing the [state] budget this week.”

A representative for Lilly’s office said Monday the hearing has not been rescheduled and that the hearing docket is “full.”

The legislation would allow individuals who can prove residency in Michigan but are unable to produce records verifying citizenship to access drivers’ licenses and state identification cards. The nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) noted in a press release that the “bills would impact a wide variety of residents, such as seniors who may have lost records through their lives, individuals on visas, undocumented people and their families, and the children of U.S. service members who are born on foreign bases.”

Prior to 2008, undocumented immigrants were legally permitted to access driver licenses and state identification cards in Michigan. In 1995, then-Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, a Democrat, issued an opinion stating that undocumented immigrants could not be denied driver licenses. 

But at the end of 2007, then-state Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, reversed that finding and issued an opinion stating undocumented immigrants could not be considered Michigan residents and thus were unable to receive driver licenses or state identification cards. Michigan’s secretary of state implemented that decision in early 2008, which left undocumented individuals unable to apply for or renew their licenses or state identification cards. 

To further cement Cox’s decision, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation in 2008 barring undocumented immigrants from accessing driver licenses and state identification.

“I’m an undocumented immigrant, but every single year when I file taxes I check the box that says I am a Michigan resident,” Fuentes said. “So, I’m considered a Michigan resident to pay taxes but I’m not considered a Michigan resident for a driver license?”

Now Fuentes and other advocates of the legislation are hoping lawmakers will reschedule the hearing for the bills that will allow tax paying residents — like Fuentes, who is undocumented and has lived in Michigan for 21 years — to be able to drive to work, doctor’s appointments, and the grocery store. In other words, Fuentes said, to simply be able to live.

“It is about driving, but it is about so much more than that,” Fuentes said. “A few years back, my son was really sick. I woke up to check on him, and he was completely drenched in sweat. I went to the nearest Walgreen’s to buy some Nyquil. The cashier asked for my ID. I gave her my expired driver license, and she said they couldn’t accept that. I pleaded and begged, and she refused. It’s an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and despair.”

Kuppa and Hood said in an interview last week that they also hope the hearing will be rescheduled and the legislation brought up for a vote. 

Nelly Fuentes

‘It was the right thing to do, even though it brought me criticism’

Dave Pagel, a former Republican state legislator who represented a portion of Southwest Michigan in the state House from 2013 to 2018, noted the Drive SAFE legislation would result in additional income for the state through the license process. 

According to a 2019 analysis from the MLPP, reinstating driver licenses for undocumented immigrants would boost state revenue by $13.5 million and contribute $12 million in recurring revenue, $9 million of which would be from sales and gas taxes related to vehicle ownership. Over the course of 10 years, the policy would generate about $100 million for the state of Michigan, the MLPP said.

“But the main benefit is in the lives of these residents of our state, who work very hard, to be able to drive and have an identification card that helps them function in society,” said Pagel, who had planned on testifying in favor of the legislation last week. “There’s just no reason to be denying this to them. It’s a shame that the national immigration debate gets in the way of doing the right thing for these thousands of Michigan residents.”

It just puts a lot of pressure on Republicans who are voting yes to be criticized, especially in their next primary. The primary system is when the loony birds on the far right succeed the most.

– GOP former state Rep. Dave Pagel

The former lawmaker said the bills present a “tough vote for some Republicans to take in this climate because the testimony was going to be powerful, and there were some major groups lining up supporting the legislation, including the Farm Bureau, the Grand Rapids Chamber [of Commerce] and the Catholic Church.”

Others expected to testify in support of the bills last week included the MLPP; the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit led by police officers; the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan; the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center; the ACLU of Michigan; and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, among others.

“It was going to be a tough vote for Republicans to say no to, and yet if they say yes it lines them up in the cross hairs of the far right folks who love to tear people down with slogans,” Pagel said. “I faced that several years ago when I co-sponsored [similar legislation]. I didn’t initiate those bills, but I put my name on them and I’m proud I did. It was the right thing to do, even though it brought me criticism.”

Dave Pagel

If the current bills were brought up for a vote, Pagel said he expects they would pass. Sixteen other states have passed similar legislation with bipartisan support.

“But it just puts a lot of pressure on Republicans who are voting yes to be criticized, especially in their next primary,” Pagel said. “The primary system is when the loony birds on the far right succeed the most.”

In interviews last week with the Advance, Kuppa and Hood emphasized they have been working with their Republican colleagues on the Drive SAFE package. Hood said that in response to other lawmakers’ concerns, the bills specify that any licenses or identification cards issued under the new legislation would clearly state that they cannot be used for federal purposes or voting.

“These bills have nothing to do with the right to vote or anything towards citizenship,” Pagel said. “That’s what the far-right extremists would be screaming, even though it’s totally untrue. Those are national issues that have been screwed up for a long time. We’ve been waiting for reasonable immigration policies to be updated forever, and it never seems to happen in Washington. These problems have gone on for decades, and that’s why we have so many folks living in Michigan and across the country without proper documentation.”

‘It wouldn’t feel like a risk going to do everyday things’

Norma González, a 26-year-old living in Pontiac, came to the United States without documentation just before starting kindergarten. Since then, she has gone on to be one of the top students in her graduating classes and, until this summer, was working as a teacher in Southwest Detroit.

After her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status lapsed about one month ago, she’s no longer able to teach but is continuing to work at a nearby mall and as a tutor. In addition to not being able to do what she loves — teach, González was also left with a valid driver license.

“If this legislation passed and I had a license again, it wouldn’t feel like a risk going to do everyday things, like go to the grocery store or go to work,” said González, a member of MI Students Dream, a coalition of Detroit educators, parents and youth organizers fighting for immigration justice. 

‘It has become this thing where I have to pick and choose if a place is worth going to; that’s my mindset now,” she continued. “Now I can’t say to my sister, ‘We have a day off together; let’s go somewhere fun. It feels like a luxury that’s not worth the risk.”

If this legislation passed and I had a license again, it wouldn’t feel like a risk going to do everyday things, like go to the grocery store or go to work.

– Norma González, a member of MI Students Dream

González, whose family left Mexico for the United States “so my dad could provide for his family,” said she’s now stuck in an immigration purgatory. After her immigration status recently lapsed — something that has been increasingly happening to people across the country as DACA application processing times increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — an immigration lawyer said her options to be here legally are extremely limited. Essentially, she was told she’d either need to get married to a U.S. citizen or be caught by law enforcement and hope it would result in her being permitted to stay in the country because she has consistently paid all of her taxes and all of the household bills are under her name.

“Now, there’s this constant reminder: You don’t have DACA; you have to be careful,” she said. ‘It sucks to remember that I was so free just a month ago. I could drive anywhere just a month ago.”

González emphasized it’s not just her who’s facing driving being a deeply daunting experience, and she has worked with countless undocumented parents who would routinely face deportation in order to drive themselves to parent-teacher conferences. As was the case with Fuentes’ husband, undocumented immigrants can be deported if officials catch them driving without licenses.

“Parents are risking themselves by taking their kids to school, picking them up, going to parent-teacher conferences,” González said. “They’re having to take risks just to be involved in their child’s education.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.