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Detroit — During a break at the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed with an immigrant rights organization advocates that undocumented immigrants should be issued driver's licenses by the state.

Whitmer was asked by an activist with Movimiento Cosecha Michigan, which fights for permanent protection for immigrants, about whether she would support changing state law to allow all Michigan residents to apply for a driver’s license regardless of immigration status. 

"We need to ensure that everyone’s got a path to getting a license, so they’ve got identification," Whitmer said. "That’s something that’s important to me, it’s important to our economy, it’s important to the people of Michigan."

Dominique León Becerra, a Detroit organizer with Cosecha who asked Whitmer for her support, said she was surprised by the governor's answer.

"After hearing the candidates speak on immigration the first night, we planned that if we got a moment to speak to her that I would ask for her support in changing legislation to provide licenses for immigrants in the state," Becerra told The Detroit News. "It was the second night and I was shocked by her answer and how quickly she agreed.

Becerra said the governor's support was important to share with communities, specifically in southwest Detroit, Hamtramck and Dearborn.

"Unfortunately, there are 100,000 immigrants here in Michigan who don't have access to licenses and her support is important because it gives us access or will pave the road forward," she said. "Hopefully, she sticks to her word."

Whitmer said other Michigan elected officials also support licenses for all.

"Fortunately, we’ve got a secretary of state and an attorney general who also, I know, feel the same way," she said.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel said the attorney general "supports efforts to move legislation to forward to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver licenses for reasons of public safety."

"Licensing undocumented residents will lead increased safety on our roads because undocumented drivers would need to pass a written and driving test to obtain a license, ensuring all drivers are properly certified to drive," said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, communications director for Nessel. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a statement saying she has "met with community leaders and legislators and stands with the governor in support of changing the law so that all individuals working and residing in our state may obtain a state ID or a driver’s license for use in Michigan."

Currently, 13 states allow residents to apply for driver licenses regardless of immigration status. 

Until 2008, Michigan immigrants were able to obtain driver's licenses regardless of their status.

In 2007, former Republican Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion saying driver's licenses could not be issued to undocumented immigrants. The Legislature then passed a law banning undocumented immigrants from getting Michigan driver's licenses.

"Now, the undocumented community is fighting to win back the right to drive without fear," the organization said. "For two years, immigrants have been organizing for #LicensesForAll."

No bill has been introduced in the current legislative session, officials said.

Movimiento Cosecha Michigan led marches in May during a day of action to demand licenses which drew hundreds of protesters in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. 

Cosecha officials posted saying they "will hold the governor accountable for putting these words into action."

Becerra said undocumented immigrants are being harassed for not having licenses, and are profiled and detained by officers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

"About 80% of those held in detention under Detroit ICE are there for not having licenses and it's a non-violent crime," Becerra said. "Most of them are heading to work, pulled over and asked about their immigration status."

► More: Here's what protesters were chanting at the start of the Democratic debate

Cosecha protesters also disrupted the second night of the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre. About an hour into the debate on Wednesday, two women were removed from the 5,000-person audience for chanting "3 million deportations," and holding up pink flags while former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking.

More than 20 of their protesters were also arrested for blocking the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel ahead of the debates "demanding 2020 hopefuls recognize the daily crisis of family separation and deportation that immigrants in Detroit are facing."

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Ofelia talks about yelling out "3 million deportations" during the presidential debate in Detroit to bring attention to immigration policies. The Detroit News

"We want candidates to know that we need a plan of action now to address these deportations," Becerra said. "There's a negative narrative under the current administration and we need it to be clear that this country would fall without us."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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