By Joanna Gardner
Rene Olarte says that as the weather gets colder, he starts to worry about how he will get to work. Without a driver’s license, he must rely on public transportation to get from Camden where he lives to his job in Cherry Hill.
“Normally in this cold weather, when there’s snowfall, sometimes the bus doesn’t come or it comes late,” Olarte explained in Spanish.
Olarte and his family joined nearly 300 people at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral on the evening of Oct. 22 for a forum sponsored by Camden County on immigration issues and in particular a state bill that could grant driving privileges to people who cannot prove their legal presence in the U.S.
For many of the parishioners gathered that evening, not driving is not an option, so they do so without licenses, and in fear, said Sister Veronica Roche, a Sister of St. Joseph and pastoral associate at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral.
“They need to be able to drive to get their kids to doctors, to get their kids to schools, to get to work,” Sister Veronica said. “Parents that are driving without licenses, when they see a police car they’re anxious, hoping they’ll get through it. Kids see that. Parents don’t want their kids to think that they need to be afraid of the police.”
State assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) explained the bill’s purpose at the forum.
“We know there are a lot of people driving who are undocumented and consequently do not have the proper insurance or proper registered vehicles or even know the rules of the road. This puts everyone in danger and increases the financial burden on those who are insured,” Quijano said.
“Ultimately this is a public safety measure that’s designed to protect motorists everywhere by ensuring that everyone is subject to the same certification and licensing standards,” she said.
If the bill is passed, New Jersey will join 12 other states, and Puerto Rico, with similar legislation.
Earlier this month the Camden City Council became New Jersey’s first governing body to pass a resolution in favor of the bill. The action was largely due to the efforts of St. Joseph’s local organizing committee, a branch of the citywide advocacy group Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP).
In April this year, the group filled the 800-person capacity church for a meeting with state assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester) about the proposed legislation. They called the initiative “Conducir Sin Miedo – Driving Without Fear.” Fuentes urged the group to push for a Camden City resolution that would show New Jersey lawmakers that the bill has public support.
In July, the group held a march where 250 people walked from St. Joseph in East Camden to City Hall to support the city resolution. In early October, the city council passed the resolution in a unanimous vote.
Joseph Fleming, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, the umbrella organization for multi-denominational faith-based organizing groups in the state including CCOP, said Camden is just the beginning. Faith in New Jersey groups have been behind the push for similar resolutions in New Brunswick and Newark.
A city council resolution “doesn’t assure that anything happens, but it helps to communicate that there is growing public support and creates a kind of drumbeat and momentum,” Fleming said.
The St. Joseph’s organizing committee worked with the county to organize the Wednesday night forum, developing questions that were put to a panel of immigration lawyers and city, county and state legislators.
If the driving legislation passes it will mean that people who cannot prove their legal residence in the U.S. will not have to pay the high fines associated with driving without a license and expose themselves to the other risks involved.
Parishioners gathered for the forum said they had friends who had been involved in accidents where they had no recourse, even if the fault was with the other driver. Others knew people who had appeared in court to pay a fine, only to be arrested as they exited by immigration authorities.
The St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral Spanish-speaking local CCOP group meets monthly to discuss issues affecting the immigrant community. The parish offers weekly English as a Second Language classes for adults.
Two years ago, in cooperation with the Camden County metro police force, they began a parish ID program where people who present a valid passport from their home country and are members of the parish can be issued a photo ID card. They also must attend a workshop hosted by the parish on knowing their rights as immigrants.
The cards serve as proof of identity within the city for those who are unable to obtain other forms of ID.
“These immigrants who are undocumented, most of them are members of the Catholic community,” said Sister Veronica, who helped found the parish ID program. “If you call God Father you have got to acknowledge that every person created in God’s image is a brother or a sister. That relationship has to mean more than any other identity.”
Rene Olarte said the parish community is one where his family feels their daily struggles are understood.
“We feel supported and we trust them. This parish has done a lot for the community,” Olarte said in Spanish.