What Jenni remembers most when police pulled over her father was the fear in his eyes.
Her dad had been driving the family in their old boxy van. They weren't far from home. When the officer walked by the vehicle, Jenni, who was about 10, closed the window blinds from the back seat. Even as a child, her response to the traffic stop was instinctive: Be small. Hide. Stay in the shadows.
The officer asked her father, who did not have a driver's license, to step outside. "I remember seeing my dad with a panicked face," said Jenni, 21, who asked that I not use her last name out of fear it could jeopardize her parents' applications for permanent residency. "I remember praying to God that they wouldn't take my dad."
The officer let her dad go, but the experience left her shaken. For nearly Jenni's entire life, immigrants like her parents who lacked legal status have not been allowed to obtain driver's licenses in Minnesota. Each trip to work or to their kids' schools carried the risk of being jailed or deported. But state lawmakers wisely restored Minnesotans' ability to apply for driver's licenses, regardless of immigration status, in a bill on its way to be signed by Gov. Tim Walz.
While the law makes sense from a multitude of angles — so much that it united progressives, business leaders, dairy farms and law enforcement in support of the legislation — it's worth noting that one segment of the population that wins is children.
"This is a huge investment in the long-term, social-emotional well-being of our kids," said Ryan Pérez, organizing director of the advocacy group COPAL MN. "They're going to have these formative, crucial childhood experiences that are going to give them their whole personhood back."
So often in debates about policy, we understandably focus on necessity. Proponents of the bill cited the need for unauthorized immigrants to travel to their jobs, medical appointments and grocery stores, Pérez said. But he urged me to also think about soccer games, playdates, band practices, museums and family trips. This is the stuff of childhood, from which a lot of families have had to sit out because it wasn't worth the risk of deportation.
"Those kids are going to be excited to go to the forest preserve or make that trip to Duluth," he said, "so that they're not only living to survive, but that they're living a dignified, healthy life."
Hard-liners against illegal immigration may never be persuaded that these families deserve dignity, too. It's unfortunate the measure passed only along party lines in the Legislature. Much of our economy is built on the backs of immigrants, who are working low-skilled jobs that few American citizens would desire.
"They don't drive because they want to break the law, but because they want to provide a living for their families," said Jenni, a student at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. "I feel like anyone would."
Most Americans don't understand the struggle and desperation that families without papers endure. It's often up to immigrant kids to navigate systems for their parents and carry the burden of worrying about them.
"We grow up very quickly," said Edwin Torres, who as a kid filled out job applications for his parents and even handled conversations with police when his dad was pulled over during traffic stops.
Torres, a DFL political strategist, is a "Dreamer," one of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. At 29, he still worries about his parents. His father, who immigrated from El Salvador to the United States without authorization, was able to drive legally in California for many years because that state allows unauthorized immigrants to obtain licenses. After Torres' parents moved to Minnesota in 2018 to be closer to family, that changed.
"I know my dad's schedule to the minute," Torres said. "If my dad was 30 minutes late one day, I would call my dad and my mom and be like, 'Is everything OK? Did you get stopped?' I have to track my parents — where they're going, where they've been — because if there was any delay, my first reaction is, 'He got stuck somewhere and he has no ID.' "
Minnesota used to allow unauthorized immigrants to get driver's licenses, but former Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended the practice in 2003. The little card we carry in our wallets, which shows we're capable of driving safely on the roads, also serves to simply say we are who we say we are. We present our identification when seeing the doctor, starting a new job, checking in at a hotel and other mundane moments without second thought. But for those who've been barred from having one, a driver's license is transformative.
It will open doors for immigrants who want to join the fabric of our society but cannot. It will allow them to be more involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren. It makes the roads safer, making all of us safer.
And it will bring some comfort to scared kids, many of them U.S. citizens, who need to grow up with stability and faith that they'll see their parents again after Mom or Dad leave the house.
Jenni said the law will lift a tremendous weight from the shoulders of many immigrant families. She remembers praying for her dad every night that he would make it to work and back without being pulled over.
"Knowing that any other little girl or boy won't have to go through that constant fear," she says, "I think a little part of me has finally healed."