WATERBURY, Conn. – Over 100 immigrant workers were forcibly denied entrance to the Rowland Government Center May 10, as they attempted to attend a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) public hearing. The violation of democratic rights was especially shocking because the hearing was discussing a proposal to prohibit some immigrants who have the legal right to live and work in the United States from getting drivers licenses.

‘Democracy doesn’t extend to us Latinos in this country,’ said one woman angrily as she tried to recover from a dose of pepper spray in her face. Two people were sent to the hospital ill and with torn clothes after state police used the spray to keep the doors from being pulled open. Dozens of others passed water bottles to get rid of the effects.

The incident was witnessed by several members of the State Legislature who vowed that the DMV would be required to hold another hearing in a large and accessible location. The DMV is required to present its proposals to the State Legislature for action in next year’s legislative session.

‘It is ludicrous that the people affected by these regulations are not being allowed to come in to speak and to hear the testimony,’ Western Connecticut Central Labor Council president Blair Bertaccini told the media.

Participation in the hearing was organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ and ACORN in Bridgeport. The workers traveled to the hearing in buses, and had prepared placards in Spanish and English to get their message across.

Speaking to the media on the steps of the government building prior to attempting to enter, the workers held a press conference addressed by labor leaders and elected officials.

‘We want you to know that you are not alone,’ said State Representative Lydia Martinez. ‘It is important that you let the DMV know the needs we have.’

‘You work hard for the prosperity of this state,’ said State Representative Filipe Reinoso. ‘You deserve a license. We will be working for you.’

ACORN, SEIU and the AFL-CIO Union Organizing Project have joined forces with immigration attorneys and business groups to protest the changes as discriminatory. In a joint letter presented to Commissioner Gary DeFilippo at the hearing, they requested an appointment to discuss the recommendations, emphasizing that ‘Our organizations represent thousands of residents across Connecticut, many of whom are immigrants who are adversely affected by the anti-immigrant policies in place at the DMV.’

These and similar measures initiated around the country since Sept. 11, which target immigrants, are being strongly protested as irrelevant to combating terrorism.

‘The DMV has clearly jumped on the post-Sept. 11 anti-immigrant bandwagon. What they are trying to do is bad for families. It’s bad for businesses. It’s bad for insurance companies. This policy will do nothing to ensure public safety; the only thing it will ensure is that we have more unsafe and uninsured drivers on our roads,’ said ACORN member Maria Casillas from Bridgeport.

Speakers emphasized that rather than preventing families from driving to work, school or the doctor, the best way to protect public safety and security is to ensure that all drivers are tested, licensed, and able to obtain car insurance.

Alex Ruano of Stamford, originally from El Salvador, gave his own story of difficulties getting to work because of the inadequate public transportation system in Connecticut. ‘My co-workers carpool to work. If our driver loses his license, there will be five building service workers in Stamford with no way to get to work. … The plan to prevent immigrants who have the legal right to work in this country from driving is bad public policy.’

Affidavits were submitted to the hearing showing the incompetence of DMV, which already denied drivers’ licenses to several individuals who have legal permanent residency status, saying they were here ‘illegally.’

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com