Massachusetts' Latinos Fight For Immigration Rights


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By Laurie Loisel

Bliss Requa-Trautz  tells of a recent case when a longtime resident of Holyoke was arrested while shopping at the Holyoke Mall on Black Friday last year. Requa-Trautz said the woman was making a purchase with a debit card, and when she did not have a license to show, she was placed under arrest by local police on a charge of shoplifting.  The very next day, a judge threw out the charge, but nevertheless, Holyoke police detained the woman for five weeks on behalf of federal immigration forces, which then had her deported to Mexico, according to Requa-Trautz. The woman left a 6-year-old daughter behind.
It’s cases like this, that advocates for immigrant rights say, raise several issues  and  make  the passage of two new laws, necessary in Massachusetts.  Claiming, the proposed laws would make life safer and more secure for the immigrant community — and by extension, the entire community. 
The first, the Safe Driving Act, (H. 3285) would broaden current policies to give immigrants who are not citizens the opportunity to obtain licenses and register and insure vehicles.
“Driving is a necessity in western Massachusetts. You need to drive to work,” said Requa-Trautz  a lead organizer with  Communities of Western Massachusetts. “For immigrant drivers, it’s about being able to drive to work, to take your kids to school, and to go to a soccer game on a Sunday.”
But there are other reasons, states across the country are adopting legislation similar to the Safe Driving Act. Requa-Trautz noted that in states that already have such policies, such as Washington State, Utah, and New Mexico, there are lower accident rates.
“It’s about the immigrant community having access, but more than that, it’s a matter of public safety and road safety for all residents of Massachusetts,” she said. At least one nearby state is  considering such  a law, and this past spring, the  Connecticut legislature approved a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
The second bill, the Trust Act, (H. 1613, S. 1135) asks local and state law enforcement agencies to exercise their right to not serve as an enforcing agency for federal immigration policies.  This approach, Requa-Trautz and others say will help build trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, key to community safety and harmony.
“When people are fearful to report a crime, whether they are victims of a crime or witnesses, our communities are less safe,” said Requa-Trautz. Just Communities is a branch of the Western Mass Jobs with Justice advocacy group.
Referring to the Holyoke woman, Requa-Trsutz says, “This was someone who had committed no crime.”  She said similar bills have been passed in other states including Connecticut and California.
She cited Amherst as a community in which local law enforcement has adopted an explicit policy that it will not act as agent or enforcer for federal immigration offices. Officials there believe cooperating with federal agencies — which is voluntary on the part of local law enforcement — actually hurts their ability to work well with immigrant communities.
“We’d like to do this on a state level,” said Requa-Trautz.
Editor’s Note:  In September, about 200 people — including union members, immigrants, area college students and others — rallied in downtown Springfield in support of the proposed legislation.  Public hearings on the bills will be held this month. 
Photo: Laurie Loisel for