The weekday begins early for Lauro at the St. Louis Park apartment he shares with his three children. The single father rises at 5:40 a.m. and readies himself for work and his 7-year-old daughter for school.
On a recent cold winter morning, Lauro, 46, warmed up his 2006 Jeep at 6:30 a.m. and walked his daughter to the end of the parking lot, where she climbs on the school bus at 6:40 a.m. Then he headed to his job as a housekeeping supervisor at a Residence Inn about 10 miles away.
As he backed out of the poorly plowed parking lot, his car radio played “Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities. He took a straightforward route to work, driving carefully over the snowy roads, staying just under the speed limit, and stopping completely at stop signs.
His car is decorated with comic book figurines. A beige cap with the moniker “Driver’s Licenses For All” hangs off of a phone holder on the front window.
For Lauro, whose last name Sahan Journal is not publishing because of his undocumented status, such a workaday routine holds anxiety and risk. Lauro fears that if he’s caught, at worst, he could be deported, and even lose his American-born children, ages 17, 13 and 7.
But a change could be coming for Lauro and thousands of others like him. Members of the 2023 Minnesota Legislature have introduced a House and Senate bill that would allow undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses in Minnesota. Versions of the Driver’s Licenses For All bill have floated through the Minnesota state government for more than a decade. Now, with Democrats prevailing in the state House, Senate and governor’s office, the initiative has found new life.
There are an estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Ninety-four percent are over the legal driving age of 16.
To gain insight into the risks Lauro faces, Sahan Journal recently spent a day with him as he drove to work and the grocery store. For him and many other undocumented immigrants, driving without a license is a daily necessity. There are no bus routes that he can take to work. In addition to work and other trips, he often has to drive his kids to doctor’s appointments, school, and extracurriculars.
“Any community that has immigrant people—St. Louis Park, St. Paul, Eden Prairie, Eagan, Plymouth—there are many kids that have the same situation with their parents,” he said. “Some kids don’t have buses, and the parent has to drive the kid to school.”
He described Hennepin County’s Family Court as his second home, a place where he spent four years fighting a custody battle with the mother of his three children.
He won his case in 2020, but in the 11-page order of custody, there’s a short line about transporting his kids between parenting time that haunts him: “Licensed driver shall provide transportation.”
“It’s not easy being a single parent in the U.S. living with this situation,” Lauro said. “It’s painful.”
A close call in 2015
In 2015, Lauro was pulled over during what he understood to be a routine traffic stop. A St. Louis Park officer asked him for a driver’s license, and when Lauro couldn’t show one, the officer handcuffed him and took him to jail. He was held for three days, then was suddenly free to go. Confused, he paid a $200 ticket, then went home.
“This is so sad,” Lauro said. “I’ve been living here for almost two decades, and I can’t believe the state is not doing anything about it. Not for me, but for the community.”
On his recent work day, he pulled into the hotel parking lot by 7:30 a.m. That afternoon, he was able to clock out on a slow work day at around 2:30 p.m., just in time to make it home to meet his daughter at the bus stop.
As he drove home, Lauro said he believes he got lucky in 2015—and could have been deported.
With two gloved hands placed firmly at clock positions 10 and 2 on the driving wheel, he described a similar stop his younger brother experienced in 2009.
Instead of being reprimanded with a ticket, Lauro’s brother was sent back to Mexico. He died there two years later.
“Somebody killed him in Mexico,” Lauro said. He declined to divulge any further details. “It’s a long story.”
Once Lauro’s 7-year-old was home from school, she buckled up in her booster seat and they headed for Costco to get milk, bread, and some fruit.
Lauro said he used his Mexican consulate ID card to sign up for the Costco membership. He carries his Mexican passport to identify himself at the pharmacy when he’s picking up medications. He also has to keep these forms of identification handy in case he has to pick his kids up from school early if they’re feeling sick.
When his two older kids arrive home from school, Lauro said, they’ll all decide where to drive for dinner—perhaps McDonald’s, Chipotle, or Taco Bell. This, Lauro said, is what he does every day.
Staying close to home
As a driver in Minnesota, Lauro said it’s impossible to avoid certain roads he knows have a strong police presence. Along with meticulously following traffic rules, he takes many other precautions. He avoids driving at night unless absolutely necessary and won’t drive in other states.
“I want to do something fun with the kids, but I’m scared to go outside of Minnesota with no driver’s license,” Lauro said, adding that he fears other police officers won’t be as forgiving as the one that arrested him in 2015. The farthest he’ll drive is to the dentist in Eagan, about 30 minutes from his home.
Lauro said he feels the pain of not being able to take his kids on longer trips. In the summer, he takes them to local swimming pools and parks. In the winter, they spend days off at the Mall of America.
“During spring break, some families go to Wisconsin Dells or Chicago,” Lauro said. “I don’t have that privilege. And that’s really sad, because it’s not fair to the kids.”
His children are all aware that their father could be deported at any time. That worry, he said, has taken a toll on their mental health.
On our way to the grocery store, Lauro carefully steers out of his lane to give space to a bicyclist on a narrow road while explaining that his oldest daughter will turn 18 later this year. While he’s skeptical that politicians, no matter what party is in charge, finally may address a barrier he’s faced for two decades, he is excited about seeing his daughter vote for the first time.
“Our community has a younger vote,” Lauro said of the Latino community. “That’s why the political side needs to change, because the younger vote is going to be more strong.”
Immigrant advocate Jovita Morales, who knows Lauro well, said his chances of obtaining a driver’s license may improve this year.
Morales said she has never seen this much energy for the Driver’s Licenses For All measure so early into the legislative session. This week alone, three legislative committee hearings are being held on the issue.
“We have a chance to pass this bill this year,” said Morales, who is part of a coalition pushing for the bill. “It’s moving really quick.”
In the meantime, Lauro continues to take things day by day, starting his morning and ending the day slowly, carefully driving in his Jeep.