CLEARWATER — Juan Cruz, a 35-year-old cook, is used to long walks in the Florida sun, but for the many small children in his community such walks could be deadly.
Cruz moved from Hidalgo, Mexico, in 1996, and went through the proper processes to obtain a driver’s license, which expired in 2005. But laws enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made renewing a license impossible for an undocumented immigrant.
Cruz and thousands of others like him are still here, walking for miles along busy highways to get to their jobs, school or the grocery store, or taking their chances with the Pinellas County bus system.
On Monday, Cruz walked the familiar route along U.S. 19 to La Reina De Mexico neighborhood market with many of his neighbors, as their children held signs with slogans such as “Drivers licenses for all,” and “Floridians’ deserve safe roads.” This trip was worth more than groceries.
“We’re out here protesting because our community has suffered from the lack of driver’s licenses and so have the citizens,” Cruz said. “I don’t want to drive illegally, I don’t think any of us do, but it’s hard to ride bicycles in the cold or the rainy season ... There are many inequalities that still need to be addressed, but this is simply about safety.”
The protest, held within walking distance of largely Hispanic neighborhoods, is part of a statewide campaign to pressure legislators into allowing driver’s licenses for immigrants. Currently, 13 states allow undocumented immigrants to have a license, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A bill to do so in Florida, known as the “Dream Act Driver’s License” bill, passed the state House and Senate in 2013, but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. This year, another bill never got off the ground.
“This is just the beginning of a year full of public pressure to get this to the governor and make voters understand that this isn’t an immigrants’ rights issue or a Hispanic rights issue, but a Floridian issue to make our roads safer,” said Paola Calvo Florido, an organizer with the Mid-Florida Regional Office of the ACLU. “Of course we look at the human side of this argument, but in a time when we’re all worried about the economy this is a solution that could benefit us all.”
An estimated 950,000 people in Florida who don’t have access to Social Security numbers could benefit from a driver’s license, and the Hispanic population in Pinellas County alone is continuing to swell, especially in Clearwater, Florido said.
Allowing immigrants to obtain licenses would require them to learn driver safety laws, and could boost the local economy. More people would be purchase cars and insurance, and have access to places. Licenses also allow police to identify drivers more easily, and who witness or are involved in an accident would be more willing to stay and to assist police and emergency workers instead of leaving the scene for fear of deportation, Cruz said.
For hundreds of people like Teofila, a mother of three who feared giving her last name, the world now is only as large as what she safely can walk to with her family. Her children have to walk or take their bikes along busy highways to go places. If they have a doctor’s appointment, they wait in the heat or the rain for a bus, which may arrive every half hour or 45 minutes, she said.
“I worry about my kids’ safety,” Teofila said through a translator. “You have to live in a very small circle, and I can’t go out every day because my kids get tired of walking. I want people to not only see us as people who don’t have papers, or don’t have insurance, but to see us as people.”
Nov. 4, Pinellas voters will decide on the Greenlight Pinellas transportation plan that would increase bus service by 65 percent, advocate Dave Kovar.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials say bus services may have to be cut by about 30 percent to accommodate the lack of funding.
“If we take away buses, those lifelines are cut, not only for the immigrants and the poor but for the old or the disabled,” Kovar said.