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Green Light Law takes effect: Undocumented farmworker one of first in line for driver's license

Daniel M. Vasta/RIT
Migrant farmworkers and undocumented immigrants in upstate New York are now able to obtain standard driver's licenses through the Green Light Law, which went into effect Monday.

The Green Light Law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses took effect Monday across New York state. It's the first time in 18 years, since a similar law was revoked in 2001.

In Orleans County, three people applied under the new law on its first day in effect. Farmworker Eladio Beltran was one of them. 

Beltran came to the U.S. in 2001, when he was 14 years old. He says that he learned how to drive by himself, out in the fields with a tractor, and by watching movies.

“You kind of got pushed to learn the difficult way,” Beltran says.

When he and his wife started a family, Beltran says he saved up his money to afford a car.

He couldn’t purchase it in New York state, so he went to Illinois, where there were already laws allowing non-U.S. citizens to register vehicles and obtain driver’s licenses.

He says now that New York’s laws have changed, he won’t have to go through that again.

“I’m glad New York state allows now this to happen," Beltran says. "I know I’m pretty sure if this will (sic) happen 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be needing to go to Illinois and by a car and bring it up here. No. I will be more than happy to spend the money in New York state.”

Later, in 2014, Beltran says that police stopped him while he was driving. He ended up detained for three days in the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia.

“When they pull you over, they turn you to immigration because you don’t have a document,” he says.

Beltran says that because of this incident, he faces possible removal from the U.S. 

“You always praying not to have any contact with police officer because you know for sure he will call immigration or border patrol or ICE," he says.

Credit Rochester Rapid Response Network
Eladio Beltran holds up a sign as he gives a speech at "Families Belong Together and Free" rally on June 30, 2018.

He says he used the car for groceries and emergencies. Once, in the middle of the night, he says he had to rush his wife to the hospital. She was going into labor with their youngest child.

“Oh, the adrenaline run through my veins. I thought, 'oh wow,' " he says with a laugh.

He says an ambulance wasn’t an option because it wouldn’t have arrived in time.

“We barely made it," he says. "When I got to the hospital, I had to grab my wife in my arms and my baby, my wife was already in labor.”

For nearly two decades, people living in New York state without legal status have had to stay under the radar, practically invisible. Now, Beltran says he has his learner’s permit, after passing the written test at the DMV. He says his wife is currently studying to take her test as well.

“We are tremendously glad that this law has passed and that we are able to do it and I’ll be able to drive my children around and have more fun times together as a family without worrying about any problems of having any traffic violations or stuff like that,” he says.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.
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