Advocacy campaign shows immigrants want licenses to drive legally

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Lenny Mora (left) of Dilley and Imelda Gomez of Hillsboro were inspired to speak out about the driver´s-license issue during their Leadership class in the Adult Education program at Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOODTwo mothers.

Two very different role models.

Imelda Gomez, the first, won praise from her 14-year-old son recently for taking a difficult step and speaking up for a cause she believes in: driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

“I know that telling my story will probably put me at risk,” Gomez said.

The risk? That’s where the second mother comes in.

Gomez doesn’t know that mother’s name. All she knows is that on a sunny day in Hillsboro’s Rood Bridge Park last summer, that mother began talking loudly and cruelly about “people who don’t belong here” and the woman’s teenage daughters started copying her, hurling ugly names at Gomez’s children. That mother yelled, “F—-ing Mexicans, go home!” before screeching off in her car with her children.

That mother came to mind when Gomez considered the possibility of becoming more of a target if she went public.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like us,” Gomez said. “But if nobody steps up, how will anybody know our story?”

So Gomez and many of her classmates at Adelante Mujeres, a Forest Grove nonprofit that helps Latinas improve their lives, are telling their stories — through letters to the editor (see page A7) and public testimony to legislators, who are considering a bill that would grant licenses to undocumented immigrants.

They may be Mexican by birth, but during their years here in the United States, the women have internalized an American determination to improve their communities by speaking out.

Making their case

Why should Oregon give driver’s licenses to people who aren’t legal residents?

Some proponents say it’s a matter of safety — that since Latinos are driving even without licenses, they should be required to pass a driving test to make sure they’ll drive safely.

But Gomez said most Latinos without licenses are already safe drivers. They don’t want to be stopped by police, she said: “Not having a driver’s license makes us more careful.”

Lenny Mora, a Dilley resident, adds, “If they don’t feel we are safe drivers, they should give us the opportunity to show them.”

Mora, 28, learned to drive with help from her father and brothers. She studied the “Rules of the Road” and got her license at age 18.

Gomez, 33, took a driver’s education course in Washington state.

Both of them drove safely for years with no accidents or citations, but lost their licenses after Oregon voters passed a law requiring proof of citizenship for license renewal.

Suddenly, they had to choose the lesser of two evils: drive illegally — or skip buying groceries for their families, going to work, attending parent-teacher conferences and taking their children to the doctor.

Occasionally the choice is life-threatening, as in the case of Gomez’s neighbor, whose five-year-old son suffers severe asthma attacks that send the woman running to Gomez’s house for a ride. She doesn’t have a license and without health insurance, she can’t afford an ambulance bill. If Gomez’s husband (who has a license) is not home, she must look for another neighbor.

Trying to be responsible

But most of their reasons for driving have to do with being a responsible parent or employee.

Mora, for example, lives in Dilley, far from bus service and way too far to walk to her job in Forest Grove.

Gomez’s 14-year-old son — a good student who takes Advanced Placement classes — can’t stay after school for extracurricular activities because he needs to take the school bus home. Gomez knows such activities look good on college applications and wants to be able to pick him up after the buses have stopped running.

Gomez attends parent-teacher conferences with her husband, who drives.

But Mora’s husband is often working during conference time, so she has to drive illegally if she wants to be an involved parent and support her children’s education.

The women know that opponents of the driver’s license bill don’t care about these inconveniences. You shouldn’t be here in the first place, they say. You broke the law coming here. And now you’re breaking the law driving without a license. That’s the real example you’re setting for your children: that it’s OK to break the law.

‘Where should we go?’

Technically, Mora and Gomez did not break the law coming to the U.S. They were brought here by their parents when they were children, aged 10 and 13, respectively, and therefore were not responsible for their arrival here.

Now that they’ve grown up here amid family and friends, they must choose between living here illegally or ripping their families from a healthy, familiar community with great educational opportunities.

As mothers, their choice is clear — but sometimes uncomfortable.

“We don’t belong in Mexico, and a lot of times people say we don’t belong here,” Gomez said. “So where should we go?”

That problem may be solved in the next few years.

Mora is applying to legalize her residency through the deferral program announced by President Barack Obama last summer.

Gomez, 33, barely missed legal residency under an amnesty program her father applied for in 1991, when she was 13. In 1998, with the application still in limbo, Gomez got married, making her ineligible for the amnesty when it came through a year later.

But she might be covered under an immigration bill proposed last week by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — if it passes.

Meanwhile, they’ll continue trying to be active citizens of the country they call home, speaking on behalf of the many other undocumented immigrants who have less English or more fear, Mora said. “We’re not just talking for ourselves.”

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