EDINBURG, September 29 - The author of legislation to allow undocumented immigrants the chance to once again drive legally in Texas has denounced DPS checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley.
State Rep. Roberto Alonzo says the agency should be informing the public that they can get auto insurance even if they are undocumented, not putting up road blocks that reduce school attendance and hurt the Valley’s productivity.
“It is sad DPS is doing this. There really is no need. People should be comfortable in the Valley to drive. Instead of this kind of enforcement, DPS should be taking a positive role, educating the public about the laws, not putting up road blocks,” said Alonzo, D-Dallas.
Over the past two weeks, immigrant parents in the Valley have been scared of taking their children to school for fear of being caught up in a random checkpoint. Breadwinners in the family have not gone to work for the same reason, resulting in productivity going down in the region. Valley residents have taken to Facebook and Twitter to warn neighbors where the checkpoints are.
DPS says the checkpoints are a response to the Valley having a large percentage of residents that drive without a valid driver’s license and auto insurance.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Alonzo pointed out that undocumented immigrants were able to apply for a driver’s license up until September, 2011. Earlier that year, the Legislature passed an omnibus immigration bill that stopped them doing so. “We would not be in this position in the Valley today if the Republican-controlled Legislature had not forced through this unnecessary measure. There would be more people driving with a valid driver’s license and with auto insurance in the Valley today if that legislation had not passed,” Alonzo said.
In 2013, Alonzo, working with the business community, authored legislation that would have allowed those without a social security card the opportunity to apply for a driver’s license permit. Such a permit would have been similar to a driver’s license. The legislation won the support of some House Republicans, but did not make it out of the House.
“We just needed a little more time to get our bill over the line. There has been more polling in Republican districts. The polls show people would be in favor of the driver’s license proposal I introduced. People need to be able to legally drive,” Alonzo said.
Remembering back to the 2011 legislative session, Alonzo pointed out that almost every anti-immigrant bill offered by Republicans was defeated, including sanctuary city legislation, which was trumpeted by Gov. Rick Perry. The one anti-immigrant bill that slipped through was the one to change the law to stop undocumented immigrants getting a driver’s license. The measure was contained in an omnibus bill, SB 9, authored by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. Alonzo said Williams has since changed his mind and now backs his driver’s license permit bill. “The Houston business community is really behind my bill. They want their workers to be able to get to work,” Alonzo said.
Alonzo added that the Texas Department of Insurance is not doing its job. “I told TDI that under the law you do not need to have a driver’s license to buy insurance. But, that has not been said and as a consequence people have the impression that you need to have a driver’s license.”
An auto insurance agent in the Valley who agrees with Alonzo’s viewpoint is Cynthia Vargas of McAllen. Vargas has been an insurance agent for 12 years and started PAC Insurance four years ago. Many of her clients are undocumented immigrants. She said there was steady growth in her business until state lawmakers passed legislation to stop undocumented immigrants from getting a driver’s license. She said she cannot understand why the legislation was passed because more and more undocumented immigrants are now driving without insurance.
“They are still driving. They are driving to work, taking their kids to school. I can tell you it is not that the undocumented immigrant does not want to obey the law. They do. It is just they cannot afford the insurance. The premiums have gone up because they cannot get a driver’s license,” Vargas told the Guardian, in an interview in June.
Vargas said that as a result of the legislation insurance agents in the Valley have lost a lot of business. “I can get letters from other insurance agents telling you how bad it is now,” she said.
In protest at DPS’s random checkpoint policy, a number of immigrant community groups are holding a protest outside DPS’s Valley headquarters in Edinburg on Monday.
“We want to send Texas a message that we will not allow the intimidation of our community,” said John-Michael Torres, a spokesman for La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “We are calling for an end to the checkpoints that target disadvantaged communities, DPS transparency and accountability to the community, and driver’s licenses for immigrants.”
Organizations participating include LUPE, Texas Organizing Project, RGV Community Dreamers, South Texas Civil Rights Project, A.R.I.S.E., Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, RGV Equal Voice Network, ACLU of Texas, Proyecto Azteca, and Fuerza del Valle.
The protest is being held outside DPS headquarters, which is at Freddy Gonzalez and State Highway 281 in Edinburg, starting at 10 a.m.