States Consider Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants Amid Ramped Up Immigration Enforcement

In New York, as in many other states, proposed legislation would represent a restoration of rights for undocumented residents

Jorge was driving a friend’s car in December 2017 when a police officer in Long Island stopped him. Because the car’s registration had expired, and because Jorge was driving without a license, the officer slapped him with a $300 fine. 

“Thank God he only gave me a ticket,” Jorge, 49, told NBC in Spanish.

It could have been much worse. Jorge, who asked to only be identified by his first name because of safety concerns related to his immigration status, knows that often when police stop drivers without a license, they contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Undocumented immigrants like Jorge are barred from getting driver’s licenses in most states, and routine stops or minor traffic offenses can escalate into detention or deportation.

According to advocates, that has become increasingly true under the Trump administration. Even in a left-leaning state with immigrant-friendly policies such as New York, there has been an uptick in arrests and deportations of undocumented residents for driving without a license, said Anu Joshi, senior director of immigrant rights policy at New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC).

“Since the Trump administration has come into power, what we’ve seen is that Border Patrol and ICE are really operating with impunity, and in a much more reckless and seemingly random fashion,” Joshi said.

An ICE spokesperson said "the agency focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security" and "does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately." But, he continued, "those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States." 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to request for comment on their operations. 

As states grapple with ramped up federal immigration enforcement, politicians and advocates are recommending safeguards for undocumented communities, including giving immigrants who are in the country illegally access to driver’s licenses. Already, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have systems in place that let residents drive legally, regardless of their immigration status.

Lawmakers in a dozen other states have introduced legislation that would allow undocumented residents to apply for licenses; Democratic strongholds such as Massachusetts and New Jersey are among them, as are states such as Kansas, North Carolina, Minnesota, Texas and Florida

In New York, as in many other states, proposed legislation would represent a restoration of rights for undocumented residents, who lost their ability to drive legally because of measures that took effect after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Immigrant rights groups have been advocating for access to driver’s licenses for years, and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer tried to reform the license policy more than a decade ago. When NYIC assesses priorities among its members through roundtables, one-on-one conversations, and surveys, this is the issue that rises to the top, Joshi said.

Beyond protecting undocumented immigrants from arrest and deportation, legislators and advocates in New York say their bill, the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, would improve public safety and contribute to state and local revenue. “It really is in the public’s interest, regardless of immigration status, to make sure that everybody who is already driving on the roads anyway is properly trained and licensed and is able to be held accountable for the way that they drive,” said New York Sen. Julia Salazar, who co-sponsored the bill.

In states that have already implemented such policies, research indicates that in some cases, uninsured rates, alcohol-involved crashes, and fatal crashes dropped after the law changed. In California, hit-and-runs decreased, “suggesting that the policy reduced fears of deportation and vehicle impoundment,” according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. One widely cited but contested statistic based on data from the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division showed that the uninsured rate in New Mexico plummeted from 33% in 2002 to 9.1% in 2011, coinciding with the change in law.

Port Chester, New York, Police Chief Richard Conway said licensing undocumented drivers would set a minimum standard of competency for people who will drive regardless. It would also save his department man hours. Whenever an officer catches a driver without a license, that usually results in impounding the vehicle, Conway said. If undocumented drivers were licensed, officers could spend that time more efficiently.

“I think it would be a big help to law enforcement, and I think it would make streets generally safer,” Conway said.

Fiscally, the New York bill that would license an estimated 265,000 people within three years would provide a one-time $26 million revenue bump as well as $57 million annually to the government, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). The potential boon comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in February that New York was hit with a $2.3 billion budget deficit thanks in part to federal tax reform from 2017.

It would also mean the purchase of an estimated 97,000 more cars at a time when auto sales are on the decline. And because undocumented immigrants would be able to legally obtain insurance, it would likely result in a modest drop in rates for all New Yorkers with an auto insurance policy, FPI found.

“I think on merits the driver’s license issue deserves a lot of support. There really is no doubt about it,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) office at New York University School of Law.

But, Chishti countered, “Immigration is not ultimately about the merits of the argument.”

“When it comes to things like giving people privileges like driving, it sort of taps into the raw feelings about immigration,” he said.

The effort to license undocumented immigrants in New York has support from key players. The New York Times editorial board ran an opinion piece this month backing the measure, and Gov. Cuomo is among its advocates.

“As Attorney General, the governor was one of the few leaders willing to stick his neck out and stand up for this issue,” said Tyrone Stevens, spokesperson for the governor. “Now as Governor, he has repeatedly said that he supports legislative efforts to address this problem.”

An ICE spokesperson said that "a state’s decision on whether to allow an alien to obtain a driver’s license is not relevant to ICE operations." A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the record.

But among the wider public, support is lacking. A March Siena College poll of 700 New York registered voters found that 61% of people opposed allowing undocumented residents to get a New York driver’s license.

One commenter on the recent New York Times editorial wrote that "it is these types of ideas that turn an average Jane away from the Democrat Party," and that by giving undocumented residents access to licenses, "you have as well as legalized them." Another called the policy "a terrible idea," writing that "enabling criminals is akin to aiding and abetting." But in recent years, visa overstays — a civil offense — have far exceeded border crossings, meaning many of the people in the country illegally are not criminals simply by virtue of their immigration status. 

New York Republican Sen. Daphne Jordan, one of the bill’s vocal opponents, authored a petition in which she outlined her misgivings: it would “open the door to voter fraud, bank fraud and ID theft” and create “a loophole for underage children to obtain valid DMV-issued IDs to unlawfully buy alcohol, cigarettes, and quite possibly soon, marijuana,” she writes, among other concerns.

Jordan did not respond to NBC’s repeated requests for comment.

The bill actually requires all applicants for the license to furnish proof of age and identity, and the license itself would include a line saying that it was “not for federal purposes,” such as flying domestically or entering a federal building.

Already, noncitizens who are in the country legally can obtain a driver’s license. New York does not yet have automatic voter registration, there are serious immigration ramifications for noncitizens who vote, and there have not been reports of widespread voter fraud by noncitizens who do have licenses, according to Joshi.

Despite the realities of the bill, its sponsor, Sen. Luis R. Sepúlveda, said it suffers from “an education problem.” Once people begin to understand its benefits, he said, opposition dissipates.

Advocates and lawmakers said some people originally take issue with the measure because they believe it will provide a path to citizenship and give undocumented immigrants access to federal buildings for potential terrorism, none of which is accurate.

What the legislation does allow is for New York residents to use foreign-issued documents as proof of identity and sign an affidavit saying they have not been issued a social security number in order to obtain a standard license. For hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, that will mean being able to go to work or take a sick child to the doctor without fear of arrest, proponents say.

That could significantly improve the lives of some U.S. citizens as well as undocumented residents. In the United States, most undocumented immigrants have been in the country for a while, and many have laid down roots. MPI estimated that in recent years, 62% of undocumented immigrants had lived in the U.S. for at least a decade; that number clocks in slightly lower at 55% in New York.

Jorge, for example, came to the U.S. 17 years ago. He has two children; his 16-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen, and his son is covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Like Jorge, one in four undocumented New Yorkers resides with at least one U.S. citizen child under 18. Through data collection and long interviews with immigrants in New York, Robert Smith, a professor of sociology, immigration studies and public affairs at Baruch College and CUNY’s Graduate Center, has identified preventable harms U.S. children with undocumented parents experience because their loved ones are unable to drive legally. Among them are fear and mistrust of the police and emotional harm.

“The kids are not kidding around. They see a police car and they immediately begin to cry,” Smith said.

He found that in three of the four New York counties where he’s conducting research, “no conviction” and “traffic offense” were among the top five reasons for deportation. Also in three of four counties, local authorities were responsible for turning over the highest number of immigrants to ICE, according to his databrief on the subject.

Nationally, ICE does not break down arrests and removals by whether an undocumented immigrant was stopped by local law enforcement for driving without a license, according to its spokesperson. But in fiscal year 2018, a traffic offense not involving driving under the influence was the third most cited reason for an administrative arrest, data from ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations show. 

Smith said the driving issue was an “unavoidable topic” among undocumented interviewees, and that increasingly, the people he spoke to would tell him police officers would pull them over and give them tickets for things they did not even do.

As to why U.S. citizen children fear law enforcement, Smith said, “Their parents are getting deported when they haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I don’t think that anyone wants to see families being separated,” Joshi said. “Parents, fathers being taken away from their kids. Mothers losing their partners. And that’s what’s happening. Every time someone is arrested by ICE or Border Patrol, that is a New York family that is being ripped apart.”

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