The Illinois drivers license bill the real story

Opinion

While the struggle continues for legal status for the undocumented, immigrant communities and their allies continue to fight for several related goals. One of these is access to drivers’ licenses without having to provide a Social Security card – required just about everywhere.

Without drivers’ licenses, many immigrant breadwinners end up driving anyway, because there is no other way to get to their job. Without drivers’ licenses, immigrant workers also cannot get automobile insurance, which creates a mess for everybody.

In Illinois, the struggle to find an alternative means to provide drivers’ licenses to immigrants has culminated in the state Legislature. Last November, a bill in the state Senate missed approval by just one vote (Gov. Blagojevich had said he would sign it). But on March 31, a similar bill, HB 4003, was defeated in the state House of Representatives by a vote of 43-68 with six representatives voting “present” and one absent. Anti-immigrant groups, playing heavily on fears of terrorism, had done their work.

Some of the Spanish-language media handled the vote in a very troubling way, creating the impression for Latino readers that the defeat was due to a “betrayal” of Latinos by African American legislators. Thus it is very important to look at the details of the vote.

On March 31, 13 of the 18 African Americans in the House voted for HB 4003. Two voted against, and three voted “present.” Six of the seven Latinos voted for the bill, and one voted against. But of the white, non-Hispanic representatives, only 24 voted for the bill; 65 voted against it, and three voted “present.” So only about 23 percent of white representatives supported the bill, as opposed to 72 percent of the African Americans and 86 percent of the Latinos. So its defeat was the fault of the African Americans? Strange math!

Breaking down the white, non-Hispanic vote by party, we see that only 16 white Democrats supported the bill, although it was backed by the Democratic governor and the Democratic speaker of the House. The Republicans also split: 44 white Republicans opposed the bill, while eight supported it. All three white, non-Hispanic representatives who voted “present” were Democrats.

The bill was defeated because a large majority of the white Republicans and white Democrats voted against it. It is probably true, as some Latino community activists are claiming, that the Democratic leadership was not energetic in lining up their own party members support for the bill.

Where did the idea come from that the defeat of the bill was attributable to the two African Americans who voted “nay” and the three who abstained (and what about the Latina who voted “nay”)? We must look at a possible hidden political agenda.

Chicago labor and community leader Rudy Lozano used to emphasize the importance of uniting three large constituencies for progress: organized labor, the African American people and the Latino people. Such unity made possible the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 and 1987. Ever since, Republicans, and also right-wing Democrats, have tried to keep these three forces from coming together again.

Currently, cooperation between organized labor and the Latino community is at a high level, sparked by labor’s adoption of the legalization of the undocumented as a major goal. Activities like the “Reward Work” and “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride” projects, initiated by labor, created very broad coalitions, especially including the Latino community. Cooperation between labor and African American civil rights organizations is long-standing. And African American/Latino unity has been expanding: There is strong Latino support for the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, State Sen. Barack Obama, an African American, who forcefully supported the drivers’ license bill in the Illinois Senate. More Latinos supported Obama in the Democratic primary than supported Gary Chico, a very articulate Latino candidate. Latino community forces have been providing organized support for a measure strongly backed by the African American community: expungement of criminal records of some ex-prisoners, a project of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and state Rep. Connie Howard (D-Chicago). Of course, Latinos and whites would also benefit from such legislation.

A revival of the old Harold Washington unity formula? This would cause fear and loathing in the White House, but also in the hearts of old-style, right-wing, corrupt and often racist elements in both major political parties. For them, the Harold Washington phenomenon must stay dead and buried with its namesake. Hence the extremely negative spin by certain reporters and politicians who have an interest in sowing dissension between the two major minority groups.

We can’t let this happen. The fact that the African American caucus of the Illinois House provided solid support for the drivers’ license bill must be pointed out over and over again, to make up for the misinformation that has been spread.



Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.