Will Immigrants Find Themselves in the Driver’s Seat?

AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka, File

Reyna Lopez of the immigrant rights group Causa explains the campaign behind the driver's license measure in Portland, Oregon. 

This article is a preview of the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

A decades-old political debate over whether undocumented people should be allowed to drive has gained new relevance under the Trump administration, as state legislators and advocates work to push back against increased immigration enforcement by the federal government.

Democrats in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon have introduced legislation that would grant residents the ability to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status (a similar bill was put forward in Virginia, but failed). Licenses granted to immigrants under these proposals would be reserved for driving and would not be compliant with the Real ID Act, the federal standard for identification used to board domestic flights and enter government buildings.

Lawmakers and advocates believe expanding access to licenses will benefit local economies, make roads safer, and, critically, put an additional barrier between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and immigrants guilty of little more than a traffic violation.

An analysis of the 44,000-some immigrants in ICE custody last summer found that a full 80 percent of detainees had only committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation or had no prior convictions at all, according to a report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. According to the agency’s own numbers for the last fiscal year, ICE charged or convicted roughly 75,000 immigrants for simple traffic violations (DUIs were not included).

Crispin Hernandez is tired of living in fear of immigration agents. Hernandez, an organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York and a former upstate dairy worker, says that he’s seen too many families in his community separated. “They’ll take a father or a mother from their family and the kids are the ones left to suffer,” Hernandez says.

If ICE wasn’t enough, undocumented immigrants in upstate New York must also contend with Border Patrol, which is allowed to conduct searches within 100 miles of the border under federal law. Both agencies have proven emboldened under the Trump administration, targeting bus stations and workplaces for raids.

“The need for driver’s licenses [for undocumented immigrants] has always been there, but in many ways it became more urgent when Trump became president. It woke up a lot of people,” says Hernandez, who is also at the center of a lawsuit against the state of New York to allow farmworkers to unionize. “Farm owners have a lot of power over their [undocumented] employees. With driver’s licenses, we would have more freedom.”

Although the majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States reside in big cities, the most vocal calls for expanding driving privileges come from rural towns where a growing number of undocumented workers have found work on farms and in meat-processing plants. It’s in these areas, underserviced or not serviced at all by state public transport, largely ignored by Uber and Lyft, and increasingly dependent on migrant work for their economic stability, where the need for licenses is greatest.

“Driving is an absolute necessity. Every day, it’s a 30-mile drive to work and a 30-mile drive back home,” says Iván Hernández, communications manager for Oregon-based immigrant rights group Causa Oregon. Hernández, who has been a U.S. citizen for a little over a year, grew up undocumented in Umatilla, a rural Oregon town with a population of approximately 5,000 (7,300 if you count an estimated 1,800 inmates at a nearby state prison). From a young age, Hernández would use his school breaks to help his parents with farmwork. First, yanking weeds from fields to clear the way for harvesting combines and then, once he was older, driving the combines himself.

“That fear is always present in your mind when you’re driving or sitting in the car,” says Hernández. “What if my dad is pulled over? Is this going to be the last time I see my mom? Will I be taken and deported to a country I don’t know?”

Supporters of the policy say that expanding access to driver’s licenses would also make roads safer. Whether or not licenses are available, families like Hernández’s are going to drive, be it to work, the grocery store, school, or to the hospital in case of an emergency. Wouldn’t it be smarter to certify that they are capable of driving and insured?
Recent research appears to validate this intuition. A 2017 Stanford study found that California’s decision to provide licenses to more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants resulted in an average decrease of 7 percent in the rate of hit-and-run accidents in the state, with no significant change in the rate of total accidents or fatal accidents. The researchers estimated that California drivers saved $3.5 million in out-of-pocket damage costs because of the drop in hit-and-run accidents.

Providing undocumented people with licenses could also be a boon for state public transportation and residents already paying for car insurance. In New York, for instance, annual government revenues from car registration and licensing fees, sales tax, and gas tax would increase by $57 million if the state were to expand access, according to an analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute. That revenue jump would come from an estimated 265,000 newly certified undocumented drivers in the Empire State. A recent study on the effect expanding access could have in New Jersey also projected significant revenue gains.

Advocates and lawmakers make a point of drawing attention to the policy benefits that would come with allowing undocumented residents to legally drive, which they view as a bipartisan win-win. But there’s also an entire history of politics at play here, national and local.

An important bit of context around the battle over permitting undocumented immigrants to drive is that there really wasn’t one until after the turn of the century. Before the 2000s, most states either allowed people without legal status to drive or didn’t explicitly require a Social Security number to obtain a license. It was only in the months and years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that state officials began stripping access in the interest of national security.

Movements to restore driving privileges formed, encountering as much success as failure for the remainder of the decade: Tennessee passed a license law, amended it, and then repealed it years later. Utah, oddly, became and remains a model for bipartisan agreement after passing its own legislation allowing for undocumented drivers in 2005. New Mexico passed its own law in 2003 and kept it. Efforts to move forward on licenses in New York in 2007 were shot down, with help from vocal opponents like then-Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand.

Advocates would come to learn that when it came to immigration, many state Democrats preferred to delegate authority to Congress, while many other Democrats turned out to be as conservative as Republicans on the issue.

Then there was the issue of coalition building and public outreach. In New York, the push for license access beginning around 2007 was coming primarily out of New York City, according to Emma Kreyche, a senior worker rights advocate at the Worker Justice Center of New York. “They didn’t have the same organizational landscape in rural communities that exists now,” says Kreyche.

“We learned in Tennessee that you can’t sneak this kind of issue through,” says Stephen Fotopulos, former executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. “If you haven’t built the political base and political power on the merits of the issue, you can pass whatever bill you like, but you won’t be able to defend it or keep it in the long run.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that a breakthrough came. By then, the DREAM Act was dead and remaining conversations in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform were collapsing. Immigrant advocacy groups and state lawmakers had run out of patience with the federal government. That year, seven states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., signed legislation allowing driver’s licenses and cards to be issued to residents without legal status.

“States took action as a matter of necessity, as a response to federal inaction,” says Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, which has provided technical support to state-led campaigns, including Causa in Oregon. “State policy is ultimately where the rubber hits the road for many immigration issues.”

Advocates and legislators looking to adopt license laws have taken lessons from states like Vermont and Washington state, where immigrant communities were rocked by recent revelations of DMV employees sharing drivers’ personal information, including legal status or lack thereof, with ICE agents. As a result, new bills like the ones proposed in New York include language explicitly limiting the information that DMVs can collect and store, as well as any information sharing with federal agencies.

While immigrant interests continue to grow as a key influence on the Democratic platform, a web of state, local, and national groups supporting license legislation has grown in both rural and metropolitan areas. Moreover, Democrats have strengthened their support in key states.

Following the 2018 elections, Democrats kept or took control of all three branches of government in New York, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, and Nevada. These six new Democratic “trifectas” joined eight other states, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Oregon, where the party dominates the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. 

Nine of the 12 states that currently allow undocumented people to drive are states where Democrats control all three branches of state government (Utah, Vermont, and Maryland being the exceptions). In other words, of these 14 Democratic trifectas, only New York, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, and Rhode Island do not currently allow undocumented people behind the wheel. 

Indeed, Democrats holding all the power in a state doesn’t mean much without sufficient political will and voter outreach. Take the case of Oregon and Rhode Island, which have both been Democratic trifectas since 2013. 

“Should this become a litmus for Democrats? I think it should be, and we’re definitely going to do what we can to make that the case,” says Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. 

Calle can speak to the importance of keeping pressure on politicians, trifecta or no trifecta, as reports continue to surface of New Jersey lawmakers getting cold feet on expanding access to driver’s licenses. Now it’s said that Democrats in the state might opt to wait until after elections next November to move. 

“There’s this worry among Democrats [in New Jersey] of ‘How do we win an election knowing Republicans will make this their number one issue during the campaign?’” says Calle. “New Jersey is not a red state. Trump didn’t win in New Jersey … They’re too nervous about being accused of being for open borders. In the age of families in cages, that timidity needs to go away.”

If there’s any silver lining to be found in the cloud of dread cast over immigrant communities by Trump’s deportation machine, it’s that the country has been forced to consider the role of states and localities in the national immigration debate. His polarizing presence has not only forced Democrats further to the left, it’s also pushed the general public in that same direction. In making the need for driver’s licenses for immigrants more urgent through jackbooted immigration enforcement, he also improved its political prospects. 

“For better or for worse, Trump has focused the nation’s attention on immigration issues in a way that hasn’t been seen for a long time. People are tuned in,” says Emma Kreyche. “We’ve seen a lot more momentum among concerned people with no previous exposure to immigration issues, everyday folks generally appalled by what they’re seeing from federal immigration enforcement.”

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