Supporters of undocumented immigrant driver's license bill rally in New London

New London — Undocumented immigrants drive to work, school and home again every day in southeastern Connecticut, and supporters of a bill being considered in Hartford rallied Saturday to allow immigrants to obtain legal driver's licenses to make local roads safer for everyone.

With what they called a common sense stand that "licensed drivers are safe drivers," more than 150 people gathered at the Second Congregational Church to support the bill with signs, chants, prayers and personal stories in English and Spanish, along with petitions containing the names of 2,337 collected over the past two weeks in the New London area.

Participants from local churches, social justice groups, labor unions and political groups had hoped to take their message to the streets with a march and rally to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, but rain altered their plans.

Instead, St. Francis House, a Christian residential program that advocates for peace and social justice, invited participants to join with that group's annual Fiesta — also forced indoors to the Second Congregational Church. Supporters of both events said the merger fit both their missions.

Debra Pennuto, director of Encounters of Hope — a program founded in 2009 at the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London — and a rally organizer, said her group helps first-generation immigrant families with paperwork for school, job training and work permit applications.

"And hopefully soon, we'll help them fill out driver's license applications," she said to loud applause.

Lizabeth Boao of New London told the audience she worked for 11 months taking care of a woman with terminal cancer. Boao did not have a license, but the woman told her not to fear as she drove the woman to medical appointments, dialysis treatments and "many times" to the hospital emergency room.

"She was very happy to have my help, and I was very happy to have her help," Boao said.

Boao and others stressed that immigrants already are driving to work or driving their children to school and appointments, and the proposed law would allow them to be properly trained, to register their cars and buy insurance.

The rally shifted between Spanish and English, as did Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's remarks. A strong supporter of the legislation, Finizio said the bill would make New London and all of Connecticut safer. He apologized for making his remarks in English, saying he understands many Hispanics in the audience who might feel nervous speaking in their newly learned English. He felt the same as a new Spanish learner. Finizio concluded his address in Spanish, to a rousing reception.

About two dozen members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union provided strong vocals for the rally, led by southeastern Connecticut union representative Jose Rodriguez, who led chants in Spanish in between speakers.

Union political director Matt O'Connor said the union has adopted the motto "justice for janitors," as it represents some 4,400 cleaning workers throughout the state, including about 75 to 100 in southeastern Connecticut.

"We've been working hard to help get the legislation passed," O'Connor said. "If they are working hard to feed their families, we want them trained, insured and driving registered cars."

c.bessette@theday.com

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