• Q&A

How undocumented activists in New Jersey won driver’s licenses for all

Undocumented activist Li Adorno talks about about how his community mobilized to demand driver’s licenses for all in New Jersey — and won.
Li Adorno at a protest against ICE. (Facebook)

In December, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants in the state to legally obtain drivers licenses by 2021. The victory was made possible by hundreds of undocumented organizers, who have been fighting for the bill for 18 years — often putting their bodies on the line and risking deportation in the process.

Among those organizers was Li Adorno, a 27-year-old undocumented activist from Union City. For the past three years, Adorno has been working with Movimiento Cosecha, a decentralized immigrant rights group that has autonomous chapters across the United States. Cosecha’s name comes from the word “harvest” in Spanish — and their mission is to use the power of non-cooperation to leverage the power of immigrant labor and shift public opinion.

Adorno’s advocacy, however, began long before Cosecha and the driver’s license campaign. Though he grew up as an undocumented Mexican American, he didn’t always identify with activist spaces. His political awakening eventually started with Anakbayan, a Filipino youth group. “I started learning about Mexican culture and Mexican organizing through Filipinos,” Adorno said. They were the ones who taught him about imperialism and colonization. 

From there, Adorno got involved in tuition equity campaigns, which secured in-state tuition for undocumented students in New Jersey. In 2017, Adorno became a member of the #Dream7, a group of DACA recipients who were arrested after staging a sit-in in the Capitol building, risking deportation. Once in jail, the group refused to give their names to police and went on a six-day hunger strike to demand that a Clean Dream Act be included in the spending bill. 

I recently had the chance to speak with Adorno about how he helped mobilize the undocumented community in New Jersey to win driver’s licenses for all — as well as his vision for the future of the immigrant rights movement. 

What does this victory mean for the immigrant rights movement?

It’s something so simple — it’s honestly insulting to neglect a community like that, to not allow them to drive their kids to school and be seen as equal New Jerseyans. Winters in the northeast are hard, especially for people who live far away from the big cities. Transportation can get very difficult. They’ve been neglecting this bill asking for drivers licenses for 18 years — and for 18 years, they’ve been giving undocumented people tickets. They’ve been making money. They’ve been arresting people, taking people to detention centers, and there they make more money. 

Since the victory, undocumented organizers in states like Massachusetts and Virginia are using many of the same techniques as Movimiento Cosecha and other groups from New Jersey for their own driver’s license campaign. What do you think made your strategy so effective?

We had to break away from the narrative of “We are weak, and we don’t know what’s going on.” That’s what Cosecha’s main focus was: to stop depending on the people who keep oppressing you and to really take the fight into your own hands. When Movimiento Cosecha came to New Jersey, that message resonated with a lot of undocumented people who were tired of their families always being scared because of ICE. They welcomed that message with open arms.

Previous Coverage
  • Undocumented immigrants plan statewide halt, escalating campaign for driver’s licenses in New Jersey
  • The bill got passed through the state legislature in a week. It wasn’t about politics or getting on people’s good sides and begging for change. It was undocumented leaders blocking streets. It was undocumented leaders doing hunger strikes, doing walks, telling people “Now is the time. We’re sick and tired of being the victims. And it’s time to demand the dignity and the respect that we deserve.”

    Cesar Chavez used to say, “The fight was never about the grapes. It was about the bigger picture.” I used to tell that to the people at the first meetings, and they would say, “Oh, that’s cool.” But they didn’t fully understand it. It’s been very heartwarming to see them approach me lately and say, “I understand the whole thing about the grapes now. It was never about licenses. It’s about the dignity and respect we deserve.”  

    The fight was led by ordinary working people, many of whom are undocumented. How did you approach mobilizing a community that has been forced to live in fear for so long?

    There is a risk that comes with protesting if you’re undocumented. In New Jersey, specifically, a lot of the undocumented leadership was scared to do anything against the law. Because they’re brainwashed to believe that the law is always right. They face that contradiction of, “Yeah, the law is always right. But I’m technically against the law, and I’m a person.” And so they have a moment of choice. “Are you going to follow what the laws say, or are we gonna push so the laws can be better?” It is a process for people to understand that sometimes civil disobedience is necessary. It was a magical moment I got to witness. It’s been powerful not only to see the hard physical change, but also the growth that comes with it. Even if we had lost this year, we still would have won, because we’ve gone through this process. And we’ve seen so many people become leaders in their communities. They’re like, “We’re not victims no more!”

    Also, a lot of people in the fight were middle-aged. They brought their kids around, so we tried to get their kids involved. They would enact scenes of what they lived in their life, when their uncle or family member got pulled over. They would give testimony about how they felt and what they feel should be done. One of our youngest leaders in New Jersey was named David Cuatle. He’s nine years old. He was key in bringing in other kids. Usually parents say, “Oh, you stay home. I have to go to this meeting.” But David was like, “Bring your kids, and we’ll play together.” That goes beyond the campaign. That becomes movement building. We chose to build a movement, a stronger community within immigrant people.

    Does Cosecha have any plans to engage in the 2020 presidential race?

    We operate outside the lines of traditional politics. We don’t support any candidate. We really want to focus on building power with undocumented people. Because a candidate is not going to understand what it’s like to be undocumented. He’s never felt the fear of losing a loved one. There’s a big disconnect. And so if we want to change something, it has to come from people who understand it completely. That’s what we are seeing in our local campaigns for driver’s licenses. And it’s working out — people are coming out of their shells. People are becoming leaders in their communities. For us, that’s more important than supporting a candidate.

    What is something you believe the immigrant rights movement should approach differently going forward?

    Undocumented people are super criminalized, but right now, we’re only talking about criminalization on a surface level. We need to talk about where that criminalization comes from — the school-to-prison pipeline, the racism, all of that. We need to understand why there’s criminalization in the first place, and make sure that the future leaders who come after us understand who and what they’re fighting for.

    There’s a lot of narratives I want to shift, especially when it comes to DACA. When Jeff Sessions went on TV to get rid of it, immigrant rights groups wanted to make sure there was a narrative about people who were brought to the United States by their parents as children. That was a mistake, and we have to own up to it. It’s about everybody who is undocumented, not just youth.

    I am a DACA recipient and when there was a decision to be made to leave our family and move far away, that wasn’t my decision. My parents did that, and they were conscious of what they were leaving behind. I was just a kid. They were the ones who had a vision, like, “We don’t see a future for this kid here. We need to give him a better future. And I know that means sacrifice, but this is a sacrifice that we’re going to do.” And they did it. They didn’t know how to get to the United States. They didn’t even know where Mexico City is. But they took that leap of faith and came to the United States. And they dreamed this big thing. So when it comes to what people deserve, and the Dream movement, I don’t think it only has to be about those of us who came here as children. It also has to be about the people who knew what they were leaving behind.

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