Illegal immigrants in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Minnesota will be eligible to apply for restricted driver’s licenses beginning in 2023. That expands the number of states that permit illegal immigrants to get legal driving privileges to 19, plus the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Rhode Island and Massachusetts legislators passed their bills last year, with voters in Massachusetts confirming support for a measure lawmakers adopted in a November. Both go into effect on July 1, 2023. Minnesota’s law goes into effect on Oct. 1, 2023.
Similar bills were introduced in at least six states in 2023. None are expected to advance, with annual legislative sessions in five of the states either already adjourned or set to do so before the end of May.
Democrats backed 2023 proposals in New Hampshire and Texas, while Republicans either introduced them in Indiana, Nebraska, Idaho, and Oklahoma or were among primary bipartisan cosponsors.
With immigration a contentious issue, Republicans—driven by conservative voters—overwhelmingly espouse tighter restrictions, generally with little accommodation for illegal immigrants. Therefore, many are surprised to learn these bills have GOP sponsors.
What may come as even more of a surprise to some is that allowing undocumented aliens to apply for driver’s licenses has been supported by Republicans, chambers of commerce, business associations, the agriculture industry, law enforcement groups, the auto insurance industry, and an array of other backers normally associated with conservative causes more often than not over the last decade.
Sixteen of the 19 states that have adopted “Driver’s Licenses for All” laws have done so since 2013.
The surprise is “totally understandable,” said Trent England, a fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and former policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation and The Heritage Foundation.
Americans are “rightly upset” about “the brokenness of our immigration system” and inability of Congress to address immigration reform, he told The Epoch Times.
“The federal government has chosen to look the other way and allow [illegal immigrants] to be in Oklahoma,” England said. “So then the question is, what do you about it?”
Hard Case To Make
England said the Oklahoma Council Of Public Affairs assisted Sen. Michael Brooks-Jimenez (D-Oklahoma City) and Sen. Ryan Martinez (R-Edmond) in putting together a bill providing a pathway for undocumented people to apply for restricted driver’s licenses.
The bill, which received bipartisan backing, would allow non-citizens who file state taxes to utilize their individual tax identification number instead of a Social Security number to apply for a driver’s license.
Under the law, the driver’s license would be marked with an “NR” notation to indicate the license holder is a non-resident and cost $50 more than a standard driver’s license.
To qualify, a person “would have to have a tax document,” England said. “These are people who are actually filing taxes, paying taxes at some level.”
The Senate version of the bill advanced from committee in March but hasn’t been heard from since.
With the legislature adjourning May 26, the bil dead for the year, hastened to the dustbin likely by a flap raised by the Oklahoma Second Amendment Foundation, among other conservative groups, over the proposal.
Oklahoma Second Amendment Foundation President Don Spencer told The Epoch Times that several members received letters from the governor’s office expressing support for the bill and listing potential benefits and safeguards in the proposed law.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office denied that the Republican, a staunch critic of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, authored the letter and told The Epoch Times that the governor withholds comment on bills until they reach his desk, which this bill never did.
“If done the right way” restricted driver’s licenses or “driver privilege cards” are “the best solution to a bad situation,” England said.
“As evidence shows,” he continued, “there are a lot of wrong ways to provide driver’s licenses to non-citizens but at the end of the day, states have to deal with the results of failed federal policies.
“The right answer is usually not to put our fingers in our ears and pretend it is not going on.”
According to proponents, those “results of failed federal policies” include unlicensed, uninsured drivers causing injuries, deaths, and millions in damages in car accidents each year, making roads more dangerous, driving up insurance costs for all legal drivers, clogging courts, and limiting employment opportunities for the undocumented, who are often already living in a shadow of poverty.
The insurance industry backs the measures but has not been as vocally supportive as groups, like the Insurance Institute, were several years ago when, as it did in 2017 in Florida, lobbied unsuccessfully for a “Driver’s License for All” law.
Only one insurer or insurance association responded to The Epoch Times’ phone and email queries regarding the laws.
American Property Casualty Insurance Association’s Vice President for Public Affairs Jeffrey Brewer would only say it has “not been closely tracking this, so we can’t provide good insight” into the proposals.
Ditto for Washington-based highway safety group, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Director of Communications Helen Jonsen said “this is not an issue we track” and offered no more comment on the topic.
England said it’s probably wise right now for insurers to keep such endorsements under wraps.
“Just from the political policy perspective, [the Oklahoma bill] doesn’t make sense, politically,” he lamented. “But it would have made the roads safer.”
Saves Lives, Lowers Insurance
Since Washington became the first state to extend driving privileges to illegal immigrants in 1993, proponents have cited road safety and lower insurance costs as among the benefits of a “driving privilege card” program.
Supporters cite a 2017 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that showed states such as California, which adopted its “Driver’s Licenses for All” bill in 2015, reduced the likelihood of hit-and-run accidents, lowered auto insurance costs for drivers, and increased the number of insured motorists on the roads, leading to a measurable reduction in poverty rates.
“We find that this policy did not increase the total number of accidents or the occurrence of fatal accidents, but it did reduce the likelihood of hit-and-run accidents, thereby improving traffic safety and reducing costs for California drivers,” the study said.
“Our findings have important implications for policymakers: providing unauthorized immigrants with access to driver’s licenses can create positive externalities for the communities in which they live.”
Also in 2017, an analysis by New York City Comptroller Brad Ladner’s office argued that allowing the city’s estimated 570,000 illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses would “improve public safety, strengthen families, enhance financial stability, increase employment opportunities, and lower auto insurance premiums” for the city’s 3.6 million licensed drivers.
Noting “undocumented New Yorkers” contribute $1.1 billion in taxes annually to the city and state, Ladner’s office said, “Extending driving privileges will give undocumented immigrants the chance to learn the rules of the road, purchase insurance policies, and interact more openly with law enforcement officials, making roads safer and building trust between police officers and immigrant communities.”
New York lawmakers adopted their restricted driver’s license program in 2019.
Safety and insurance costs were the reasons for the Minnesota House approving such a measure in a late-February vote, sending it to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who signed it into law on March 7.
Under the new law, “all Minnesotans” are eligible to apply for driver’s licenses “regardless of immigration status so long as they pass the written and practical tests” beginning Oct. 1, 2023.
The bill was backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and Minnesota Police Chiefs Association, labor unions, grassroots immigrant organizations, an array of nonprofits, and elected officials in a coalition spearheaded by the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
“This legislation increases safe legal access to our shared roads for everyone,” the center stated, noting the bill actually restores state statute to 2003, before amendments excluded illegal immigrants from applying for driver’s licenses.
Republican Sponsors In Indiana, Idaho
Proponents in Indiana cited the same benefits but were less successful in getting a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Blake Doriot (R-Goshen) and Rep. Joanna King (R-Middlebury) adopted before the session adjourned on April 26.
The bills were backed by the Indiana Motor Truck Association, 49 mayors—including 25 Republican mayors—the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Catholic Conference, Indiana State Poultry Association, Indiana Muslim Advocacy Network, and, among others, the Insurance Institute of Indiana.
Under the bill, a person would be required to have paid taxes in Indiana in the past year, submit fingerprints for a criminal background check, and have insurance. They must renew their driving privilege card every year and pay an additional $50 fee.
Despite being sponsored by Republicans, the Senate version advanced through one committee hearing but got a “do not pass” verdict from another, where it died. The House measure was never heard.
Sen. Jim Buck (R-Kokomo) said during the second hearing that many lawmakers were “sympathetic” to proponent’s arguments, calling the measure “one of the best bills” he’d seen regarding the issue.
But he couldn’t vote for it.
“The fundamental question still remains from those that have obeyed the rules and done the right thing—to try to placate their frustration when I’m down here voting to complicate their frustration. I’m just struggling,” he told the panel.
“You’ve got two sides here, very emotionally involved, and I keep hearing this same phrase, to ‘follow the rules and do the right thing.’ It’s hard to square.”
In Idaho, Sen. Jim Guthrie (R-McCammon) was the sponsor of SB 1081, which would make anyone age 16 and older without proof of citizenship eligible for a restricted driver’s license.
Under his proposal, applicants would need to apply for the license in person, pass the state’s driving test, and provide “some form of identification,” such as a birth certificate.
The bill was heard by the Senate Transportation Committee on March 1 without a recommendation. On March 15, it was referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee where it was never heard before the legislature adjourned its 2023 session on April 6.
“Without question, data shows road safety improves with drivers trained and licensed,” Guthrie said during the Senate Transportation Committee hearing.
“Accidents are less deadly when drivers are trained, injuries are less severe, property claims are smaller. The result is from two key factors: a trained driver and an insured driver.”
The bill was widely supported by chambers of commerce, industry groups, and the agriculture industry but, unlike in most instances, was opposed by the Idaho sheriff’s associations, claiming it has vagaries that would “allow criminals to exploit for illicit gain.”
Also during that hearing, Sen. Chris Trakel (R-Caldwell) expressed a common frustration with the whole situation.
“I don’t think illegal immigration would be a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that we have employers illegally hiring these people,” he said “So I find it difficult to reward bad behavior, especially when I’ve had so many immigrants come to me and tell me all the hurdles they had to pass through, how hard they had to work to get here to be here legally. And we’re just gonna start giving privileges away?”
Immigration Reform Advocates: No Way
Most groups opposing “Driver’s Licenses for All” laws are generally immigration reform advocates such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, ProjectUSA, and the America First Foundation, or elections integrity groups such as the Honest Elections Project.
FAIR State/Local Engagement Director Shari Rendall in an email to The Epoch Times dismissed many proponents’ claims.
“People argue that giving drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens will make our roads safer. However, this a misnomer because a 2018 study conducted by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 5 percent of the drivers involved in fatal car accidents were unlicensed drivers,” she said.
That means 95 percent of drivers involved in fatal car crashes are or were licensed drivers, she said. “Suggesting that giving an illegal alien a driver’s license will make them safer on the roads is, therefore, tenuous at best.”
Rendall had little sympathy for illegal immigrants struggling to find work because they do not have a driver’s license.
“Proponents claim that drivers’ licenses are needed for individuals to get to work. This is a totally invalid reason to issue a driver’s license to an illegal alien. it is unlawful for illegal aliens to work in the United States,” she said.
Rendall said “Driver’s Licenses for All” laws treat illegal immigrants “as if they are lawfully in the United States and encourages illegal conduct.”
She cited concerns expressed by many opponents that such measures could allow someone to build a false identity based in seminal documents that cannot be “fully vetted” for accuracy.
“When they present identifying documents we cannot be assured of their veracity,” Rendall said. “While not every individual who enters the country illegally intends us harm, we cannot be confident in every person’s intentions who crossed our borders illegally.
NumbersUSA CEO James Massa agreed, with a qualifier.
“First,” he said in an email to The Epoch Times, “let’s not confuse the right to drive with the right to work in the United States.”
Massa said such measures “give a veneer of legitimacy to practices that undermine the post 9/11 purposes of REAL ID or the longstanding, Title 8—lawful, Unlimited temporary nonimmigrant worker program (H2A) that allows workers to provide agricultural labor or services on a temporary or seasonal basis.”
NumbersUSA maintains there is already a pathway for undocumented aliens to apply for a driver’s licenses outlined under the 2005 REAL ID Act.
Massa said the federal law “ensures that, indeed, someone has the legitimate documents that show they are who they allege themselves to be.”
He said visitors and immigrants can drive in the United States for up to three months before they need to apply for an International Driving Permit.
NumbersUSA is opposed to states allowing “lesser standards” for drivers licenses that accept “green cards” or “temporary work permits” to receive “standard” driving licenses.
Massa, too, had little sympathy for undocumented aliens who say they need licenses to work, but was especially critical of employers who back such measures.
“There is simply no reason for employers or workers to break the law, including the need to drive,” he said.
Election Integrity Concerns
While proponents argue safeguards can be installed to ensure restricted licenses are not used to register to vote, opponents aren’t convinced.
“One of the root issues that FAIR has with giving illegal aliens drivers’ licenses is that creates an incredibly slippery slope to allow voting rights for those who are not U.S. citizens,” Rendall said, citing “motor voter laws” in many states where DMVs ask applicants if they would like to register to vote.
“They do not let these applicants know that registering to vote is reserved for American citizens only—the result is that many non-citizens are, in turn, registered to vote,” she claimed.
“If they do exercise the right to vote, it would be difficult for poll watchers to know that they are ineligible since there is very little to distinguish between REAL IDs and non-compliant ones.”
In Oklahoma, “We worked on the bill to make sure it would not compromise election integrity. That was our No. 1 concern,” England said.
“Not only would not have compromised election integrity, but it would have made it better” by requiring information sharing between the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and state/county elections offices, he said.
Proponents say support for immigration reform and tighter immigration laws does not mean opposing driver license eligibility—and documentation—of who is driving what on the nation’s roads.
When lobbying for his bill in Indiana, Doriot told fellow senators in a February hearing that his measure would ensure “we know they [immigrants] are already a contributing member to our economy and society,” people who are employed and active in their communities.
Proponents also argue that the “Driver’s Licenses for All” law help those who Americans want to help—refugees escaping totalitarianism.
In testifying on behalf of his bill in Nebraska, Sen. Tom Brewer (R-Gordon) on Feb. 14 told the legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee—Nebraska has only one state legislative chamber, the Senate—that Ukrainian refugees, many of them were drivers, including some with commercial driver’s licenses, need licenses to work in the state.
“We’re trying to make a category to put them in so that they can have a license and have a life here doing the things that they need to do in order to be productive,” Brewer said, inviting a Ukrainian refugee living in Nebraska to testify on its behalf.
“As conservatives, we ought to be the people who understand refugees the best, especially those coming from communist countries, people who reject communist, and embrace American freedom,” England said, adding it is “perfectly reasonable for states to make things” tolerable so they can survive.
There already are accommodations for refugees in the 2005 REAL ID Act, opponents argue, reciting the oft-repeated, often-disregarded axiom that two wrongs don’t make a right.
“The real issue is that undocumented, illegal aliens should not be in the United States being forced to work at low wages and substandard work conditions,” Massa said.
“This is unfair to them and undermines legal temporary workers, or legal permanent residents, or U.S. citizens.”