By Megan Hoff
Comunidades Organizado el Poder y la Acción Latina, or COPAL, is a new organization here in Minneapolis. Their mission is “uniting Latinxs in Minnesota in active grassroots communal democracy that builds racial, gender, social and economic justice across community lines.” Recently, they’ve been lobbying for “Freedom to Drive,” a bill that just passed the Minnesota House of Representatives. This bill would allow all Minnesotans, regardless of immigration status, the ability to apply for driver’s licenses. This isn’t a new concept; immigrants were allowed to obtain driver’s licenses if they could pass the driver’s test and have proof of insurance until it was revoked under Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2003. I spoke with COPAL Senior Lead Organizer Rico Durán on why this bill is important and how people are coming together to make this happen.
What do you think the average voting Minnesotan should know about the Freedom to Drive Bill?
The most important thing is that it’s a right for the people, that the state government can issue a driver’s license. But if the people do not participate or are not aware of this right, then people will disengage or not help to pursue to achieve a driver’s license that will help and benefit the community as a whole. And we are talking about the economy, or taking care of families… for the people to know that the system needs you… that [it] can be a power of society in Minnesota, then it will be important for everyone.
Describe the history behind the bill.
I want tell you that nine years ago, this was something that a group of leaders… mothers, they came together and talked about it. And they had a conversation in South Minneapolis, bringing those issues and how it was really hard for them to bring their children to the schools, or how their husbands had to go to work without driver’s licenses, and all those issues… some of those ladies took the leadership and started the conversation in a bigger circle of leadership and some members of the community, and they brought it into trying to build a bill to achieve a driver’s license for everybody… people have driver’s licenses, everyone in Minnesota. Then, you know, that was taken down, but then those ladies that I told you about, they work hard to… bring the driver’s licenses back. So, going to these days, we just kept working into this issue, and we’re going to work around the bill. We found, I believe, the perfect author for the bill, which is Mr. Ryan Winkler, and we just keep working as a coalition of organizations who come together in these committees to support Mr. Winkler… To the House of Representatives, we are being part of the process with private committees who listen about the bill. And finally, on April 5th, the bill went to the House vote and passed. Now we are in the time where we are building strategies and how we’re going to work with the Senate.
When did you personally get involved with COPAL?
I’ve been a community organizer for the last 20 years in Minnesota. I started with leadership, youth development, working with different parishes in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. From that, when you work with youth and minorities often, you work with those issues, right? I mean education, health, and others, and that is when I heard about the driver’s licenses, and I felt like it was not a different issue… [It] was connected to all those needs that the basic community needs. From there, the leadership, we kind of got interested in participating and supporting, first to rallies or finding out more [about] what can we do, how can we participate or be involved, or even listening to the stories the community has to say. COPAL was born 14 months ago. We are a really new organization. Yes, before was a project, you know, we had been involved with the driver’s licenses… and all those issues. It was a project but formally got started as a formal organization 14 months ago. I’ve been with it since the beginning.
What is your role at COPAL?
I am a senior lead community organizer. My role is to overview the programs and also connect those programs with the community. I am with the people, where they are. I find them through parishes, festivals, places, and then talk about the issues and have presentations, and people listen and follow. Also my experience with news, and also radio, you know, that helps me to spread the message and to talk to people and to communicate, that helps me to get even more [people] involved or people have a piece of trust in the work that I do.
Would you be willing to describe (or know of) a person who faced repercussions because they were driving without a license?
Speaking in general, people tell the stories, you know, and from the beginning, even… working with driver’s licenses, you know how people struggle; there’s many, many issues. In order for people to come here, sometimes in the horrible weather of Minnesota, which, well, we love Minnesota, right? But going out there and working in the cold weather or rainy days or anything, any immigrant coming here when they don’t have driver’s licenses, and [they] have to go out and provide for their families or for themselves, it’s a different story… those individuals struggle to go to work without driver’s licenses. Some of them, you know, they are even hired driving for other people, being responsible for bringing them to work, or for their own children, or cases even to go for their basic needs, you know, could be groceries, could be even leisure time, if you go to the park or something. But you don’t want to be afraid if the police stop you and then, in the worst of the cases, being in prison and not able to provide for family, or even deported, just because you don’t have a driver’s license… not having driver’s licenses, this causes stress in our community.
How do you believe this bill will impact the latino community?
I have seen many people through all these years. I’ve been seeing the children, or the youth, when they come into the youth programs… how as they grow, not just their families, but also when they face the time when they have to drive, they have to start working or providing, you see how in every single day, they have to face the situation, right? It’s not just like, “Oh, this is an event that happens once in a while.” It’s every single day. Because even when you are not driving, you know that it’s necessary, especially in Minnesota. It’s a need—to drive. So, I just feel like the community… when you know that you need something, and you cannot achieve it or you have to hide, again, this is a lot of stress for the community.
How do you believe this bill will impact other immigrant communities?
It’s a chain reaction because we all work, and we live in Minnesota. We all wanted to be a part of this great land, to be as huge and as big and as important as it has been, in terms of economy history. Minnesota is the land of diversity where different groups, they come to live and adopt this beautiful land. But obviously, when one of the communities lives in trouble, I believe that everybody suffers. You can have a small business, but if your employees need to drive or they need to work, but if they are not able to attend, you’re going to suffer with them. Or, if you’re a teacher, and the children cannot be dropped off or picked up at the school. Or you’re a nurse, and you work in the hospital, that’s the same thing.
It affects more than just the people who don’t have the licenses.
That’s correct. It does, it does. But again, you know that people don’t have driver’s licenses, but you also are connected to them.
Do you believe this bill will result in greater economic prosperity for Minnesota?
I believe so. I don’t have the numbers right now, but I know that from the perspective of the Latino community, the economy that they move… is so, so important. We cannot lose that pillar of what the Latino [community] brings into Minnesota.
Some republican party members have stated that this bill would allow criminals who do not have proper documentation to get licenses; how do you respond to that?
Well, you know, it’s a general comment. I mean, it’s not just… because you’re undocumented. Those are arguments that aren’t based, in any way. I just believe, obviously, criminal activity is not determined by the race.
What would you like to tell people who oppose this bill?
We need to look at our backgrounds, where are we coming from. Minnesota is a really young state that has been historically formed and built by immigrants… but when we provide those opportunities, or we are thinking that people can grow and make us grow, and being part of an environment where it’s a win-win situation for everyone, that would help. My advice would be that we need to look back to our ancestors, how everybody came here in the same conditions. That resulted in a great prosperity for the ones who live here, right? So, that’s why we need to look back in order to build the future. At the same time, we need to look at numbers, listen to the stories, and they are not different to the ones that are behind us. I mean, we need to be looking for the human side of individuals.
How can students get involved?
Two things: we work as a community. We work with a great coalition of organizations with the driver’s license issue. Obviously, we have other programs, but talking about this, we have an ongoing plan. It’s based in relationships. We as an organization cannot do all this work alone. There are members of the community that get involved in terms of keep building relationships, find out what we do, help us to build, and to be part of the community. The more that we get involved, even learning about the process or the issue, that’s a great way to help. The other ways to get involved physically or with actions, is [to] come in and see us or contact us, to our website or telephone number and get more directly involved. Like when we do visits to the legislation, when we do rallies, when we do education programs, presentations, or communicating and informing the community about this important issue.
Activists who are undocumented or who have family members who are undocumented can face deportation. How can someone who is undocumented get involved in this project?
Actually, the people are involved. We get [people at] all those rallies. As COPAL, we represent every community. But, working mostly with the Latino community, we call these people, and they respond, you know? We’ve been packing those rooms at the state building when the house was listening through those hearings of the bill. People have been responding. People are not afraid, people are friendly, people are trying to show, “Yeah, we’re here, but we just want to be visible, we don’t want to be invisible to people.” We wanted to be part of this system that will allow us to drive, to keep working the economy, to pay stocks. In fact, that will be increasing the economy… it will have the revenue increasing, by issuing just the driver’s licenses. But again, you know, people have been participating… The problem is, they’ve been exposed to the fear of driving every single day… They are civically engaged; they are participating.
Anything else you want to add?
You know, I want to say thank you. Thank you, because people like you help us to communicate what we are doing, and I just want to say that this is important… We wanted to work on this because people need it, because it’s something that has been [implemented] before; we just wanted to establish that. It’s not anything new that we wanted to bring [to legislation]… We just wanted to go back to those days where people were totally fine driving and helping the community. And also building the communication with the police department, authorities, and opening bank accounts, buying houses, buying cars, just being part of the system, you know. I just want to say thank you because you’re helping to promote that this is a great opportunity for everyone.
If you’re interested in getting involved with COPAL, call 612-767-3675.