Immigration / Politics

Why Issuing Driver’s Licenses to the Undocumented is a Good Idea

For the past few weeks, the topic of illegal immigration has been heavily discussed in relation to the ongoing Southwest border crisis. However, one issue that has gone under the radar has been the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants already living in the country.

On May 1, 2014 the District of Colombia joined ten other states in issuing “limited purpose” driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. From first glance, these licenses are identical in design to a standard driver’s license. The only distinguishing factor is a label in the top-right corner that reads: ‘NOT VALID FOR OFFICIAL FEDERAL PURPOSES’.

The issuance of limited purpose licenses is partially a result of the REAL ID Act, a 2005 bill that sets certain federal standards on all drivers’ licenses. This initiative aims to improve national security and counter-terrorism efforts, due to the fact that four of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 used state-issued driver’s licenses to board planes.

Because applicants would now have to present proof of legal U.S. citizenship or residency, illegal immigrants would be unable to obtain a driver’s license. This has paved the way in some states to issue ‘second-tier licenses’.

In order to obtain this license, immigrants must present proof of identity, such as a foreign passport and proof of state residency, as well as pass a driving test. Some states require additional documentation, such as tax return forms, or social security ineligibility forms.

Immigrants can use these licenses to drive, register cars, and obtain car insurance in their respective state. However, they cannot be used to board a plane, enter a federal building or military base, or complete an Employment Verification form.

Immigration advocates contend that these measures promote road safety and enable members of the undocumented immigrant population to achieve greater self-sufficiency.

“It is my belief that by [granting undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses] you would reduce the number of hit and runs and increase the number of insured motorists on the road,” said Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

There is indeed a benefit to issuing these kinds of licenses, not simply for undocumented immigrants but for all drivers on the road.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than are validly licensed drivers. Additionally, uninsured drivers cause over $4.1 billion in insurance losses per year, because licensed drivers must pay higher premiums for accidents and injuries caused by unlicensed drivers.

Immigrants who normally fear contact with state and local law enforcements would also be more willing to report crimes and assist in community policing—ensuring greater public safety.

Nevertheless, critics argue that these measures undermine national security, place burdens on public services, and encourage more illegal immigration.

This argument falls short on many levels. Denying driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants won’t fix our broken immigration system that is in dire need of reform. The current immigration bill has stalled in the House and looks less and less likely to pass anytime before the midterm elections in November.

Meanwhile we cannot ignore the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country. They won’t leave simply because they are ineligible for a driver’s license. Those who need to commute to work or drive their children to school will continue doing so.

“[O]nce [undocumented immigrants are] here, what do you do? Do you basically say that they’re lepers to society? That they don’t exist?… A policy that ignores them is a policy of denial,” said former Florida governor Jeb Bush in 2004 in his support for a driver’s license bill to the undocumented.

It is important for states to acknowledge their illegal immigrant population and develop realistic and practical solutions. In fact, granting illegal immigrants an identity document in the form of driver’s licenses not only helps local law enforcement, but also national security efforts, according to Bratton.

Still, some immigrants are concerned about the label on the license, claiming it acts as a sort of ‘scarlet letter’ and can lead to discrimination or even deportation. There are some other grey areas that remain, for example how these licenses would operate if immigrants were pulled over in a neighboring state that does not issue or recognize these types of licenses.

While there are some issues to be worked out, it is clear that issuing limited-purpose licenses benefits both undocumented immigrants and all drivers. As Congress struggles to formulate a solution to the ongoing immigration crisis, these state-level efforts to address their illegal immigrant population are a step in the right direction.