On any given day, just after daybreak, you’ll see them. And then again in the afternoon and into the early evening. All along the New Bedford waterfront.

A steady stream of young men on bicycles — both full-size and strikingly under-sized, two-wheelers. There are also women walking in pairs —  twentysomethings and older women too; and then there’s the solitary men and the solitary women who walk alone, a look of all business on their faces, changing their paths when they encounter strangers.

A woman with her handbag walks along one of the seafood house parking lots as a tractor trailer sits in the background. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Up and down Herman Melville Boulevard they travel, hard on the fish houses that line the harbor by the North Terminal and also farther south along MacArthur Drive. Knapsacks on their backs, they are coming to and from the city’s seafood processing plants. They walk and they ride bikes because they can’t, or don’t, drive. This week I saw one woman traveling briskly along on an electric scooter.


The travelers are among the city’s thousands of undocumented immigrants — hundreds of Central Americans who have lived in New Bedford for nigh on two decades now. Many of those on Melville and MacArthur are traveling from the fish freezer warehouses to the Little Guatemala that has grown up in the Near North End in recent years. Acushnet Avenue is more Mayan now than it is Portuguese. Others on the waterfront service roads make their way to another Latino enclave in the South End, in the neighborhoods around Ruth and Rivet streets. If you only travel Route 18 on your way into and out of New Bedford, you might never see them.

Two men, their work knapsacks on their backs, ride along the seafood processing plants on Herman Melville Boulevard. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The largest number of these waterfront travelers are the Mayan workers of New Bedford — largely undocumented residents of the city who have come from the Guatemalan highlands over the past few decades. But they are not just from Guatemala — there are also lots of other Latino migrants in the city now, from El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic. And an assortment of other places in the warmer climates of the Western Hemisphere.

If you happen to be on The Avenue at the right time and right place — say, the corner of Holly Street and Acushnet near the Rite Aid drug store around 4 p.m. — you will see vans stopping off, loaded with immigrant workers who, like the waterfront travelers, aren’t driving. The SUVs pull up to the corner and they unload all at once — five, six or seven people piling out of a vehicle that quickly pulls away. They are coming in from the farms in the suburbs or the roofing businesses and contractors for whom they work. 

And if you ever ride the Number 1, 2, 3 and 4 SRTA buses to the neighborhoods just north and south of downtown, you’ll also find these newcomers to the city. I once had a nice chat with a Guatemalan man coming home from his job with a landscaper whose customers were in South Dartmouth. He took the Number 3 bus up Dartmouth Street and then transferred to the Number 4 up Ashley Boulevard. Or vice-versa on the way to work. He said he lived on one of the side streets between Ashley and Acushnet.

A man rides a bike under the overpass on North Front Street, toward Melville Boulevard in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

So now we are going to vote in November on whether these folks who live such meager lives among us in New Bedford should be able to legally obtain a driver’s license and travel to their jobs and wherever else their lives take them.

Many of them still won’t drive — they don’t work in the kind of employment where you can easily afford a car. Others — especially the ones who have arrived when they are young and have been here for decades — will end up getting their licenses.

The longer they are here, increasing numbers of these immigrants gain legal status. There is violence and economic deprivation in much of Central America that makes them legitimate candidates for asylum. Those people can drive legally but yes, there are lots of others who can’t drive legally, and they drive anyway.

Two bicycles parked outside one of the seafood houses in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Some of those folks get in trouble on the roads and cause horrible accidents. Like many citizen Americans, they get drunk and drive anyway. Unlike most Americans, however, they often don’t have motor vehicle insurance, creating a nightmare both for other drivers and the police when they get into accidents.

But many other of these immigrants are just trying to stay within the bounds of the society they live in. Keeping their heads down in the grimy, smelly fish houses and keeping up with their efforts to send back remittances to their impoverished relatives south of the border.

Supporters of the driver’s license bill, passed last summer by the Legislature after 17 year of trying, say it’s not just jobs, but schools, shopping and medical appointments that the immigrants need transportation to. Opponents say it’s all about what is fair. They believe their forefathers came to the country legally and that people who have come to the country illegally should not be rewarded with a license. They also make the argument that employers’ ability to hire undocumented workers depresses the wages in blue-collar jobs, making those positions unattractive to American citizens.

Two bicyclers cross over the railroad tracks near the seafood houses on Melville Boulevard in New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

But the truth is that the quotas for immigrants legally arriving from Latin American countries are low. So fleeing the violence and lack of economic opportunity in their home countries, they come here.

New Bedford prides itself on being an immigrant city. But what kind of an immigrant city is it? The immigrants who came over the last century — the Irish, the Portuguese, the French Canadians and Cape Verdeans — are mostly legal now. Though some of them and their ancestors no doubt also arrived illegally years ago.

We are going to find out on Nov. 8 what kind of an immigrant city New Bedford is. Our answers to Question 4 on the ballot will tell us whether we are a city for all immigrants, or just the ones who came in bygone years.

A woman zips along Herman Melville Boulevard with her knapsack and electric scooter. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.