HARTFORD, Conn. – Labor, community and civil liberties organizations are joining with immigrants in a heated battle to support their right to drivers’ licenses in Connecticut.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the Department of Motor Vehicles took it upon themselves to draft new proposed regulations that would deny immigrants without permanent status the right to obtain drivers’ licenses.

The proposed rules, drafted in disregard of the needs of immigrant families to travel to work, school, doctors and shopping, came under immediate attack.

Recently, several busloads of immigrant workers crowded into the Legislative Office Building in Hartford for the second hearing on their right to drive. The hearing was called at the insistence of members of the State Legislature who where present at the first hearing in Waterbury when the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) barred two busloads of immigrants from entering, and state police fired pepper spray into the peaceful crowd.

In response to public outcry, the DMV modified their original proposals, in time for the second hearing.

“Their new set of proposed changes are slightly less draconian,” said Ruth Hernandez, immigrant and organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ. “However, many groups of immigrants who are legally in this country will still be unable to obtain licenses under the new provisions.”

“This is an issue of simple fairness,” said ACORN member and immigrant Eduardo Jimenez. “I work. I pay taxes. I should be allowed to drive. Isn’t it better to know that I am an insured, qualified driver than worry about me getting into an accident and causing a public safety risk?”

In addition to testimony from immigrant workers, several state legislators, John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, and Theresa Younger of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union addressed the hearing.

Speaking on behalf of the 211,000 union members in the state, Olsen emphasized that the tragedy of Sept. 11 “does not allow infringement on workers’ rights.” Olson continued, “America is a country of immigrants. Denial of drivers’ licenses is fundamentally unfair, and flies in the face of democratic rights.”

“The most basic human right is a job,” said State Rep. Felipe Reinoso, an immigrant himself, who represents Bridgeport. “ The drivers license is needed to go to work, to feed families. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

Gesturing toward the crowded hearing room, he told the DMV officials, “Tu Casa es Mi Casa. This is my state, your state, our state, the Great State of Connecticut. No human being is illegal.”

State Rep. Demetrios Giannaros, also an immigrant, who represents Farmington and Plainville, angrily chastised the commissioners not to “treat immigrants as second- or third-class citizens.”

He emphasized that the proposed rules “not only discriminate against the most vulnerable, and create a class of people discriminated against, but also hurt the Connecticut economy. Connecticut needs good workers who can get to their jobs.”

“Please take a look at the people in this room,” testified Ruth Hernandez. “These are the people whose lives you are hurting with your policies. They are not terrorists. They are just like you and me.” Speaking of SEIU and ACORN, she added, “Our organizations plan to continue to work together with attorneys, lawmakers, business leaders, community organizations and immigrants to expand the rights of immigrants and fight discriminatory and racist policies.”

The policies cannot go into effect unless they are adopted by the State Legislature, which next convenes in January 2003.

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