Driving the Motor City

May Day 2019 in southwest Detroit. | Photo: Abayomi Azxikiwe

By Elena Herrada

There is a movement building in Michigan to restore undocumented immigrants’ right to drive. Movimiento Cosecha, a national organization, held marches on May Day, including several across Michigan. Detroit’s turnout was great, with over 1,000 people from the southwest side community along with other allies. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs had been planning a May Day event and fused it with Cosecha’s efforts. It was a very good day for all.

The demand for drivers’ licenses for undocumented migrants is central to Cosecha’s work. I wish to give some historical context to the struggle because when we first started Centro Obrero de Detroit (2006 to 2010), everyone could get a driver’s license who could drive.

As the anti-immigrant movement took hold, a state legislator from 71st District in Michigan sponsored a bill to take away licenses. I debated him on the topic on NPR/WDET. The corporate world sprang into action to defend many professionals who drove to hospitals, universities, mortgage companies, etc. who were foreigners living in Michigan. Ultimately, undocumented people were the only ones left out of driving rights. The law left Latinos out, mainly. A classic bully will attack people who have no capacity to respond. That’s why we have so many ruthless people in political life.

The law (around 2008) did not immediately go into effect, but the Secretary of State employees and police departments began implementing it immediately. At Centro Obrero, we were well aware of Indiana, Ohio and Illinois passing laws outlawing migrants driving rights, but Detroit was still good.

At UAW (United Auto Workers) Local 22, we were a hive of activity. We taught ESL (English as a Second Language), did wage claims, all manner of advocacy one can’t even imagine. Lawyers like Barry Waldman took on workplace injury cases. College professors and dishwashers signed up to help handle claims and teach and learn. We were deeply involved in day-to-day struggles. The UAW gave us free space and we operated on a daily basis, discussing the theory of our work with all who came in for ESL or anything else.

We began to notice cars and pick-up trucks from other states waiting for us in the parking lot when we got to the local in the morning. People from surrounding Midwestern states asked if they could sign up for ESL. Of course. Is there a fee? No. Can you give me a letter stating I am enrolled in the class? Of course.

These letters would be taken to the Secretary of State office with the Detroit address of the new students and they would be issued a driver’s license. Michigan was a beacon for workers trying to go to work. In Detroit, everyone knows you need a car here. It’s the Motor City. Those without cars are punished.

Soon, the Secretary of State refused to honor the letters as proof of Michigan residency. I accompanied a man to get his license because the law had not changed yet, but the front desk – the hegemons who enforce laws before they become laws – denied this right to migrants. Some of these were Mexican-American workers behind the desk. I went in to ask why. My question, asked loudly and angrily: “Why are you making life harder for people when you know what they’re going through?” It nearly caused a riot. It immediately changed the atmosphere because almost all the people sitting in the place were Latinos and had the same question.

Before the law changed, we had many reports that police were pulling people over and confiscating their licenses. Police knew that the person, if undocumented, could not renew it. Some licenses were brand new and would have been good for another three years, but life was hard on migrants who were easily profiled. Cars were confiscated, deportations occurred, all over the pinche driver’s licenses.

It became impossible to get insurance or a car in one’s own name. Don’t even ask about that. Now, the police can see if a car has insurance without even pulling the car over. Because of the high cost of insurance inside Detroit, most Black and Latino people can’t afford it because it costs more than twice as much as white people in the suburbs pay. Race is a major factor in the cost of insurance and makes it so easy to pick out who does and doesn’t have insurance. Detroit is a constant target. Many people left this Promised Land when driver’s licenses were taken away. It’s a major human rights issue and we applaud Cosecha for taking it on. Many of the young people in the May Day march were little kids when their parents lost their driving rights. It’s time to demand full humanity for all.

Elena Herrada is a grass roots activist and lifelong Detroiter descended from Mexicans who were repatriated during the Depression. She is the mother of four daughters and grandmother of five.

May Day 2019 - Cosecha Detroit

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