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Driver's Licenses for Undocumented: Benefit for Some or All?

Germany's Kim Bui competes during the women's uneven bars final artistic gymnastics event of the European Championships in Munich, Germany.
Germany's Kim Bui competes during the women's uneven bars final artistic gymnastics event of the European Championships in Munich, Germany.

Each weekday morning, 19-year-old Eri Torres of Morristown, New Jersey, catches the 6:45 a.m. public bus to the County College of Morris.

Class begins promptly at 8 a.m. but her shuttle bus only operates every hour-and-a-half, so running late is not an option. If it doesn't stop at all, she's out of luck.

Torres has no option but the bus. She cannot drive herself to school because obtaining a driver's license is not possible as an undocumented immigrant in New Jersey. Nor will her parents drive her. She rarely gets into a car with them.

Originally from Quimbaya, Colombia, the teenager and her parents have lived in the shadows since they arrived three years ago and overstayed their visas.

Their status means they cannot risk doing anything like driving without a license that might bring them to the attention of immigration authorities. Without a valid driver's license, many drivers do not obtain insurance. Without insurance, they are breaking New Jersey law.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is known to target undocumented immigrants who have broken the law - even if the offenses are minor traffic violations and put them in deportation proceedings. In some reported cases police departments have worked with ICE to turn in offenders.

According to ICE data, the agency made nearly 159,000 arrests in fiscal year 2018, a 44 percent increase from fiscal year 2016.

About half of those arrests, 76,204, were the result of traffic offenses, charged or convicted, an 11 percent increase from the previous year.

'Super scary'

On one occasion, Torres was being driven by her mother late one evening when they were signaled to pull over. Waving flashlights, a line of police were searching cars.

Her mother, behind the wheel, held her emotions steady. Torres, the family's sole English-speaker, explained to the officer that her mother only had a driver's license from Colombia, and showed it to him. He and three other officers inspected the car.

"You better get a New Jersey license," the policeman told Torres' mother finally. "Good luck."

He let them off with a warning. Shaken, Torres' mother cried inconsolably all the way home.

Since then, Torres seldom rides in the family car. If her mother or father is caught driving without a license, the thinking goes, at least she may be safe from deportation.

"It's super scary," Torres says of routine grocery runs and hospital visits where public transportation options are limited. "You feel like nothing."

12 states and counting

If the New Jersey legislature changes requirements to obtain a driver's license, the Torres family's luck could change, as it has for hundreds of thousands more across the country.

To date, 2013 was the biggest year for the nation's undocumented driving-age population. Eight states plus the District of Columbia passed legislation allowing residents to obtain a driver's license or card, regardless of legal status. Two more states followed suit in 2015.

There are 12 today — each with its own set of restrictions. A grouping of them is across the American Southwest; a scattering along the Atlantic coast.

12 states and D.C. allow undocumented residents a driver's license or card (M. Sandeen/VOA)
12 states and D.C. allow undocumented residents a driver's license or card (M. Sandeen/VOA)

Following the 2018 elections, Maine and New York joined three other states, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, in which Democrats dominate all three branches of state government and as is often said, elections change things, in this case potentially for undocumented drivers.

Controlling the governorship, with majorities in the state senate and house, Democrats in at least two of those states are considering providing expanded access to driver's licenses: New Jersey and neighboring New York.

If enacted, proposals in both states could impact more than 1.2 million driving-age undocumented immigrants who currently do not qualify, and who — like the Torres family — have scrupulously avoided run-ins with the police in their communities by always looking over their shoulders.

The new legislation would amount to more drivers on the road who are tested, insured, and licensed, creating safer roads, according to Erika Nava, policy analyst at the New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).

"California has seen a decrease in hit-and-run accidents, so they're not fleeing the scene as much now that they have a license," Nava told VOA. "They don't fear that ICE might get them, so there's more accountability."

Ideological opposition

In New Jersey, public opinion favors a change in legislation. Across party lines, registered and likely New Jersey voters support the proposed law by a nearly 2-1 margin — including 62 percent of registered Democrats and 47 percent of registered Republicans — according to a poll conducted by Clarity Campaign Labs.

Apart from safety concerns, those in favor have an economic argument. According to NJPP, annual insurance premium payments would increase by roughly $223 million a year as a result of increased coverage, while the state would collect $11.7 million in license fees, plus recurring fees.

New York state, if legislation were passed there, would collect an estimated $57 million annually in combined vehicle registration fee and tax revenue, according to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Similar proposals have been introduced elsewhere, including in Virginia, though it is unlikely to be approved by that state's divided government.

Opponents everywhere say the measure sends the wrong message: that undocumented immigrants are welcome, when they are not.

In the Garden State, a near 20,000-signature petition circulated by Republican lawmakers labeled the proposed democratic legislation a "foolish quest to turn New Jersey into a sanctuary state."

"As a legal citizen and taxpayer of [New Jersey], I oppose giving illegals driver's licenses. I have to show six points of ID just to renew mine," Derek Freyberger commented on the forum, adding: "just [because] they have a license doesn't mean they will get insurance."

"They have fundamentally broken the law and as such are criminals and should be treated as such," New Jersey resident Linda Salmons wrote.

Others have expressed concern that non-English speakers might have difficulty reading road signs or that a relaxed identification process could lead to an increase in fraud.

'Desire to do the right thing'

Similar to laws in 12 other states, two license categories would exist under New Jersey's proposed legislation: a limited, standard driver's license — barring entry into federal buildings or boarding an airplane — and a federally compliant REAL ID license, which would require proof of lawful presence in the country.

Aside from New Jersey's undocumented residents, the state's homeless and formerly incarcerated population, along with low-income families and victims of domestic abuse — vulnerable residents who may lack access to certain documents — would benefit from a wider range of accepted forms of identification.

Lacking a driver's license, "you're walking a tightrope," stuck on the fringes of society, said Jamal Brown, a once-homeless, once-incarcerated New Jersey resident and member of the nonprofit Camden Coalition's Community Advisory Committee.

"They all know how to drive, and they all have the desire to do the right thing," Brown said.