How undocumented immigrants in NH make a living without the right to drive

By GABRIELA LOZADA

New Hampshire Public Radio/Report for America

Published: 09-25-2023 7:59 AM

When her dad would drop her off at school in Nashua, Mirka Estrella would spend the whole school day feeling scared and nervous. Her dad drove without a license; he couldn’t get one because he was undocumented. The possibility of losing him to deportation was a constant fear.

Estrella’s parents are two of the nearly 10,000 undocumented people living in New Hampshire, according to the Pew Research Center. Advocates say every one of them who is driving doesn’t have a driver’s license. New Hampshire law doesn’t grant this population access to this vital piece of ID, as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont do.

Estrella says her family was forced to make a plan in case her father, the main breadwinner, was arrested and deported. Her dad would teach her and her siblings how to cook and take care of themselves.

“You never know at what moment it could happen, and as a kid it would always resonate in my mind,” Estrella said.

Even though that didn’t happen, Estrella, now 21, says that was always on her mind. She says that has caused her PTSD. Research has shown that children of undocumented immigrant parents without a driver’s license usually experience constant fear, nightmares and long-term emotional harm.

For families like the Estrellas, the fear is pervasive, but so too are the financial and emotional strains that come without having this piece of ID.

The Massachusetts model

For the past five years, advocates in New Hampshire have been trying to pass legislation that could help families like the Estrellas get driver’s licenses. Immigration lawyer Bruno D’Britto says the 17-year-long effort in Massachusetts could be a model here.

This summer a new law went into effect allowing undocumented immigrants in that state to get licenses. A Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report says this law could allow 45,000 to 85,000 undocumented people to get licensed in the next three years.

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Massachusetts has now instructions on how to get one in 15 languages.

“Something that was crucial (there) was having business owners’ support and people from the law enforcement,” he said.

Earlier this summer, D’Britto gathered police department chiefs from Merrimack, Manchester and Hollis who have shown support for a similar law in New Hampshire. Nashua and Manchester mayors also support the proposal. They say it will help identify drivers better, make sure people know the traffic laws and make safer highways.

Diniz, from Brazil, says all she needs is a valid license to be able to make a living here. She already knows the traffic laws, as she used to drive frequently in her country, she says. She lives with her husband Travis, an American citizen. (This story is not using their real names to protect their identity.)

While Diniz is technically living lawfully in the U.S. as she applies for asylum, backlogs in immigration courts can significantly delay the process to obtain a work permit, which would eventually allow her to get a driver’s license.

State law prohibits asylum-seekers like her, and undocumented immigrants, from getting this type of ID.

On average, in the U.S. it could take between two to 10 years to get this refugee’s protection. There is no data about how much time an undocumented immigrant must wait in New Hampshire. This asylum limbo has confined her to sit at home all day, alone.

Diniz says it’s frustrating because she depends on her husband for everything.

“To go to work, to go to groceries, even to go down the store to get something to drink, I have to go or I have to call an Uber for her,” Travis said.

“(They should experience) how families function, how relationships change, how stress is our most consistent feeling,” Diniz said, “before making a decision for people who are painting their houses or doing their yard work.”

It takes 10 minutes to drive to the nearest bus stop, but she would have to carry a heavy vacuum and cleaning supplies with her, so taking public transportation could be challenging. The couple says they spend around $400 dollars on Uber each week to get Diniz to work.

New Hampshire’s continued efforts

Lebanon Democrat Rep. George Sykes has been pushing for five years to give this population access to driver’s licenses. He says the people who oppose it argue that would increase voter fraud and that it would make it easier for people to obtain other public benefits illegally.

“In order to vote, you need to show that you are the person you represent to be, but (a driver’s license) does not show citizenship, and that is the final piece that is required to vote,” Sykes said.

Sykes says voter fraud is already rare in New Hampshire. Since 2006, the Heritage Foundation has recorded 21 cases of voter fraud but none of the people who voted were undocumented.

Sykes also notes that giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses could increase the number of people insured on the roads and prevent fatalities. A 2017 study in California says the policy has helped reduce the likelihood of hit-and-run accidents by 10%. Another study says in Connecticut the same kind of crimes have decreased by 9% between 2016 and 2018.

In order to get a driver’s license in the 20 other states where legislation permits it, undocumented immigrants need to show proof of valid passport from their home country, taxpayer ID or proof of residency, but not a Social Security number. Sykes says that would also be required in New Hampshire.

Sykes says what undocumented immigrants are really looking for is having a license to go to their jobs.

According to the advocacy group the American Immigration Council, in 2018 undocumented immigrants in the state paid around $14 million dollars in federal taxes and $6 million in state and local taxes.

The human toll

One of those taxpayers is Rafael. (This story is not using his or his family’s name to protect their identity.)

His eyes light up when he says he recently bought a white truck, but he can’t drive it. Being a one-car, one-driver household is affecting his marriage.

His wife says her daughter has to sit in the car a lot, sometimes up to four hours a day. She wonders how that affects her daughter’s health. She says lawmakers should try to live without a driver’s license in a state like New Hampshire before making a decision in the next legislative session.

As for Rafael, working and being able to go places is important. What he really wants, though, is to feel free driving again, go on road trips and not be scared anymore.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.