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Group Supports Bills To Assist Immigrants

Driver's Licenses, Education Costs Targeted

February 28, 2005
By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

About 70 immigrants and their advocates came together in a church basement Sunday to pray for reforms and to rally behind legislation that would lift two formidable barriers to better jobs and education for noncitizens in Connecticut.

Their meeting at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Hartford, organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equality and Justice, took place on the eve of a public hearing today on a controversial bill that would permit noncitizens who reside in Connecticut to obtain a driver's license.

State Rep. Felipe Reinoso, a Bridgeport Democrat who introduced the bill, candidly told the gathering Sunday afternoon that many are opposed to it.

"This is extremely essential for our people who are working very hard and contributing to the prosperity of the city and the country. They need to drive. They have to drive," Reinoso said.

"They are not coming here to be terrorists," added Reinoso, a third-term lawmaker and native of Peru. "Our people are here to work. It's enormous - the amount of people in our state who suffer from this.

"This is personal to me, since I am an immigrant. I cannot forget where I am coming from."

Reinoso also is an ardent supporter of another immigrant-related bill to guarantee in-state college tuition rates for immigrants who have attended at least two years of schooling in Connecticut and graduated from a high school in the state or an equivalent program.

Currently these students, because they are noncitizens, are charged nonresident rates at state colleges, making the cost prohibitively expensive for many.

"The bottom line is, we are going to lose another generation of kids who are ready to start taking classes, but the American dream for them is over for them as soon as they finish high school," Reinoso said.

The bill, which will be the subject of a hearing on Tuesday, also would extend the in-state rate to students who are classified as illegal immigrants, if they file an affidavit with the college stating that they have or will apply to legalize their status. This would help, among others, students whose parents are undocumented or illegal immigrants.

The Rev. Tom Mitchell of St. Augustine - in English and Spanish - quoted various Bible passages that urge the embracing of strangers. "That is why we are here, as people of faith, looking for rights for immigrants," Mitchell said. "This is our call to action."

The bills being heard by the legislature this week are only two items on a broad agenda of reforms the interfaith coalition seeks. The group also is lobbying for an end to deportation of immigrants convicted of minor criminal offenses; safeguards against exploitation of immigrants in the labor force; and an end to inhumane detention of those seeking political asylum.

"Help us to be a voice," prayed Persida Mendez of New Hope Christian Church in East Hartford. "Help us to be an advocate. Help us to have the passion to work for immigrants so that all of us will have a better life."

Part of the 90-minute meeting was devoted to debunking myths about immigrants, touting instead their work ethic, willingness to learn the English language and embrace of the American dream of prosperity and equality. Citing various reports and economic experts, coalition members Nancy Parker and Tim Alstrum noted that the percentage of immigrants in the United States today - 11 percent - is relatively small, especially in comparison to the 14.7 percent of the population immigrants represented in 1914.

The hearing on the bill proposing driver's licenses for noncitizens begins at 11 a.m. today in Room 2-B of the Legislative Office Building, adjacent to the Capitol; the hearing Tuesday on in-state tuition rates for immigrant residents begins at 11 a.m. in Room 2-A.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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