Several NH mayors, police chiefs say it’s time to give undocumented immigrants access to IDs

By GABRIELA LOZADA

Report for America / New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 06-24-2023 10:18 PM

Efforts to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses have repeatedly stalled at the New Hampshire State House in recent years, facing opposition from those who argue that it would make it easier for people to obtain other public benefits illegally.

But at a recent community meeting, several high-profile public officials expressed support for expanding access to valid forms of identification to help local immigrants more easily drive, attend school or engage in lawful employment.

The New Hampshire Brazilian Council estimates there are around 10,000 undocumented immigrants in the state of New Hampshire.

In testimony to lawmakers, people who were once undocumented have described how not having a valid license and being unable to drive hindered their ability to participate fully in their communities, partly due to the state’s lack of sufficient public transportation. Some reported they and their children feared the police for that reason.

In a roundtable hosted by the New Hampshire Brazilian Council, the mayors of New Hampshire’s two largest cities and several local police chiefs underscored these concerns and said they support efforts to expand access to valid forms of identification for undocumented immigrants.

“Businesses need a workforce,” Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said during the meeting, “and individuals need to be able to get to those jobs.”

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchness echoed that sentiment.

“We have a lot of jobs here and not enough people to fill them,” Donchess said. “It’s important that they are allowed to have a driver’s license to support their families and their communities.”

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Hollis Police Chief Joseph Hoebeke said allowing undocumented immigrants access to this form of identification can have broader benefits. He said it would ensure more drivers receive proper training in traffic regulations, have their vehicles registered and inspected and get insurance — leading to safer roads for everyone.

Hoebeke said he and other chiefs participating in the recent meeting “stepped out of their comfort zone” to voice support for this change, and “there wasn’t a lot of chiefs that are willing to raise their hand.”

“We need to look at this from a (human) perspective. Folks want to come here to be successful,” he added. “What’s wrong with that idea?”

Hudson Police Chief Tad Dione said he would hope that anyone — regardless of whether they have a valid driver’s license — should feel comfortable calling the police in case of an emergency. But he also agreed that this form of identification could help alleviate the fear of some undocumented immigrants when they come into contact with law enforcement.

“We don’t want our victims in Hudson to get lost because they may be living in the dark,” Dione said. “We want them to understand that they can come forward and report, even if they are undocumented.”

Merrimack Police Chief Brian Levesque highlighted the collaboration that some local police departments have been working to build with the New Hampshire Brazilian Council, other organizations and activists that advocate for local immigrants.

“We don’t want them to be victims of crime and not have a place to report,” he said.

The police chiefs from Manchester and Nashua did not participate in the meeting, though Nashua’s police department sent a representative who spoke about how they are engaging with the community with language-accessible traffic safety workshops.

Taking steps to enhance diversity

Other government officials participating in the recent meeting with the New Hampshire Brazilian Council included New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald, Department of Safety Assistant Commissioner Eddie Edwards and several state lawmakers.

The authorities had the opportunity to hear first from the Brazilian Ambassador in Boston, Santiago Mourão, who also emphasized the pressures people are facing to be able to drive. He pointed to a law set to take effect soon in Massachusetts that will allow undocumented people to apply for a driver’s license starting in July.

“Having a driver’s license is a game-changer,” Mourão said. “On one side, it gives us safety on the roads, but with it people can also feel they are much rooted in the society.”

Other local authorities talked about the importance of language accessibility, English language learning programs and the efforts to broaden diversity training.

In the New Hampshire judicial branch, MacDonald said 800 staff members had just finished diversity training to learn how to better communicate with people from other countries. He said it’s part of a diversity and inclusion initiative launched in 2022, which also included goals for increasing the diversity of the judicial branch and people pursuing careers in the legal field.

Bruno D’Britto, the organizer and director of the New Hampshire Brazilian Council, said he is collaborating with the Division of Motor Vehicles to create videos about obtaining a driver’s license for immigrants legally allowed to apply. He said they are trying to prevent scams.

“When I arrived in New Hampshire many years ago, I fell into one of those scams and paid $150 to scammers just to go to the DMV,” he said. “That is still happening.”

The officials gathered at Nashua City Hall also talked about the need to improve English language learning opportunities in schools. Mourão, the Brazilian ambassador, said it is essential that kids learn English, but communities should also make it possible for second- and third-generation immigrants to access heritage classes on Portuguese.

“This also gives the possibility to have bilingual workers, which can increase their participation in society,” Mourão said.

D’Britto said forging solid partnerships between cities and towns’ authorities is vital to secure equitable access to resources. He hopes the dialogue continues.

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