Driver’s Licenses: A State-by-State Process

An increasing number of U.S. states are evoking state’s rights in order to grant driver’s licenses to their residents, regardless of their immigration status. Individual states, most recently California, have addressed the issue of undocumented drivers on the state level, due to Congress’s continuing inability to pass national legislation regarding immigration reform. The ability to obtain an authentic driver’s license has numerous practical, personal, and societal benefits, despite criticism from opposition.

In a report entitled, “Living in a Car Culture Without a License-The Ripple Effects of Withholding Driver’s Licenses from Unauthorized Immigrants,” published in April of 2014, Sarah Hendricks from the Immigration Policy Center examines how restricting the undocumented immigrant population from obtaining driver’s licenses harms the potential growth and benefits this population brings to their communities. Specifically, the lack of access to licenses limits where these individuals can work, live, worship, study, and socialize, amongst other confines. Without a license, there are tangible restrictions or hurdles to getting around, such as to an outlet mall or a state university. In major urban areas this issue can, in part, be reduced by the access to effective and regular public transportation and carpooling, but in rural and less populated areas this problem is exacerbated.

These challenges restrict certain areas such as the purchasing power of this population which directly impacts local economies, the ability of students to participate in after school extra curricula’s such as sports, clubs, or academic help if there are no extra school bus routes, and the ability for this population to receive health care or participate in health initiatives. Within this report, Hendricks also discusses how the legitimization of license creates safer roads for all of the U.S. as licensed drivers will have a better knowledge of U.S. road rules and laws and will be able to purchase car insurance. Politicians have been focusing on this argument, that licensed drivers will have to pass the same written and driving test as lawful residents, so granting licenses is for the collective safety and good of the community. Both of these factors positively impact the entirety of the U.S. by reducing the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on U.S. roads.

As an illustration, the California Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that within 3 years 1.5 million people, without lawful status, will have valid California driver’s licenses. This has the potential to have positive impacts on local communities and the entire state. Individuals interviewed in line on the first day the licenses were available cited increased mobility, better employment and educational opportunities, and less fear of driving on the roads without a license as reasons for getting a license.

Hendricks also raises the point of how restricting access to driver’s licenses creates “hostile and unwelcoming” communities for migrants, which can perpetuate a culture of fear, uncertainty, and negative stereotypes. In alignment with this argument, activists and supports have raised the issue of identity associated with licenses.

A license ultimately is a government issued photo identification that in addition to permitting driving, serves as a way to prove your identity in formal and informal settings. In his article, “How Getting a Driver’s License Changed My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an immigration activist, discusses the benefits of having a driver’s license and how it impacts a person’s identity. Simply put, he states, “it proves you exist, that you’re part of a community.” Within the article he cites other individuals who articulate similar feelings and sentiments about the importance of having their identity recognized via the license process.  Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 60, granting California licenses, and referenced the identity factor when he stated, “No longer are undocumented people in the shadows. They are alive and well and respected in the state of California.”

As it becomes more obvious that state’s should offer driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals, the ability for the state to effectively implement systems for individuals to get these licenses is another question. Washington, DC authorized licenses for undocumented individuals but the implementation system has been met with harsh criticism: discrimination against applicants at the DMV and extremely long wait periods to take the test, some appointments scheduled for 10 months in the future.  Each state is developing their own methods in order to meet the demands of these drivers and the specific state. It is still a relatively new process and different kinks are being worked out.

The need for licensed and knowledgeable drivers is very real throughout all U.S. states. The benefits extend throughout the community and state in terms of positive economic impact, social benefits, and better road security; and it all creates a recognized form of identification. State’s need to continue to develop practical and effective ways to meet these needs, so that more drivers can drive with licenses and insurance.

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