I used to live in fear. Fear of being separated from my family and fear of being forced away from my home, away from everything and everyone I had ever known. I am not a criminal, but my life has been criminalized. I have lived in Rhode Island for practically my entire life, having moved here from Europe when I was merely ten months of age. My visa expired when I was a young child and just like that, I became an undocumented immigrant.
For much of my life, documentation has been an obsession. Angst consumed me as a teen. My status constantly raised basic questions about life. I worried that I would never be allowed to drive. I worried about getting a job. These were recurring, pervasive thoughts in my thirteen-year-old mind.
Fortunately, in 2012, President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum. This decision granted provisional presence to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Finally, I felt a sense of relief. I applied for DACA and underwent a background check. My application was approved. Thanks to DACA, I was now allowed to get a driver’s license.
Possessing a driver’s license means everything to me. This document allows me to work, to pursue higher education and to volunteer in my city. A license gives me a sense of being, by allowing me to fully participate in the community. Unfortunately, thousands more are not in my position. Many undocumented immigrants in RI are terrified that they will be pulled over while driving to their jobs, homes, or schools. I believe that these undocumented immigrants should not live in fear. They deserve a chance to apply for a driver’s license.
Despite enormous hurdles, undocumented immigrants continue to contribute to their communities. They have paid approximately $33.4 million in yearly tax contributions in RI, including income taxes, as reported by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. With an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number provided by the IRS, millions of undocumented immigrants throughout the United States contribute billions to local, state and federal governments. Nationally, immigrants comprise 13% of the population, but contribute 14.7% of the total economic output in the US, as shown by the Economic Policy Institute.
Unfortunately, there has been a systematic effort to distort the contributions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, with the intent of keeping them mired in the immigration process. Lobbying groups, such as the private prison industry, have echoed many of RI Rep. Nardolillo’s sentiments in his February 28th op-ed. Private prison corporations such as GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America stand to gain financially from undocumented immigration. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, the industry has doubled in size, while simultaneously spending over $32 million on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. In addition, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which Nardolillo cited, has a track record of affiliating with white nationalist movements. The founder of FAIR, John Tanton, has a record of association with former Klan lawyers and Holocaust deniers, as shown by correspondence archived at the University of Michigan’s library. In fact, FAIR is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As a result, the benefits of immigration are lost in debate. Immigration reduces overall budget deficits, as shown in a study by the National Resource Council. The issue here is not that undocumented immigrants are stealing two and three jobs each while paradoxically qualifying for every government assistance program in existence. The issue is that corporate interests stand to gain from a system that deports members of working families while inflating the profit margins of the private prison industry and appeasing white supremacists.
I strongly believe that Rhode Island should grant drivers’ licenses to the thousands of undocumented immigrants who file taxes, as the legislation requires. The thousands who live in fear only wish to better the lives of their family and children, an unequivocally American value.