Licensing Undocumented Drivers

Licensing Undocumented Drivers

Six years ago, James and his wife Regina were two of 2,000 people who received a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation informing them that they had to surrender their driver's licenses or face possible repercussions. Since James and Regina were undocumented immigrants, their individual tax identification numbers (ITINs) allowed them to legally file taxes, but not to claim the associated tax benefits, such as driving, as a result of the REAL ID Act of 2005. Although not all states have fully complied with these stipulations, the act, in principle, requires that Social Security numbers, rather than ITINs, be used to secure a license — and Social Security numbers are not given to the undocumented.

James had been in the process of applying for an employment-based visa, which would have provided legal status to him, his wife, and even his daughter. But the new license requirements made that pursuit nearly impossible. To maintain the job that was sponsoring his visa, James needed to be able to drive to work. Now he would have to drive illegally, knowing that any minor road infraction could lead to deportation, and to losing everything he had worked toward. Regina faced the same dilemma. Her income composed half of the family's earnings, and she too needed to drive — to get to work, to take her daughter to after-school activities, and to buy groceries. She broke into tears as she handed in her license, feeling vulnerable and scared now that the thin layer of security had been ripped away. "In this country, the power to drive, to drive peacefully with a license, is a necessity. It's not a question of luxury, but of necessity," she told me.

Ineffective Measures for National Security
Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, few states explicitly barred unauthorized immigrants from obtaining a driver's license. Shortly after 9/11, however, restrictions amped up, largely because of the revelation that the terrorists had obtained state-issued driver's licenses. Following the recommendation by the 9/11 Commission to "set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver's licenses," the REAL ID Act was implemented.

The restrictions were proposed to prevent future acts of terrorism, even though the hijackers legally entered the United States with visas and acquired legitimate IDs. While seven of the hijackers fraudulently misrepresented their state or residency, they did not misrepresent their identities or legal status. Furthermore, one of the hijackers used his Saudi passport to board the plane, indicating that a U.S. driver's license was irrelevant in this scenario.

The driver's-license restrictions implemented after 9/11 would have been fruitless in preventing the attacks. In fact, the information from the terrorists' licenses proved to be critical in identifying the persons responsible for the attacks, as federal authorities relied heavily on the licenses' photographs.

Denying licenses to undocumented immigrants does nothing to address the issue of domestic terrorism. Rather, it adds an additional hurdle for law-enforcement officials to clear when attempting to identify persons who may pose security concerns.

A Matter of Road Safety
Since driving is such a vital function in daily American life, restricted access to licenses does not deter unauthorized immigrants from driving; rather, it further criminalizes them. And because licensing requires a driving test and knowledge of road rules, it can make a significant difference in preventing accidents.

A 2011 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed that unlicensed drivers are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than licensed ones. Of the unlicensed drivers involved in fatal crashes, a significant majority (84.5 percent) were between the ages of 18 and 64, meaning that unlicensed drivers are not primarily underage, as might be expected.

To make matters worse, without a license, immigrants are not eligible for auto insurance. As a result, licensed drivers must pay higher premiums for accidents caused by unlicensed drivers. A 2014 study by the Insurance Research Council revealed an estimated $2.6 billion insurance loss in 2012 based on uninsured motorists claims from that year.

Not Just Undocumented Immigrants
According to the National Immigration Law Center, restrictions on obtaining licenses and identification cards have not only affected the undocumented population, but have also had a negative impact on U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The NILC found that stringent requirements to prove identity have prevented senior citizens and people with disabilities who do not have current government-issued photo IDs from securing benefits and essential services.

Fortunately, states still hold some power to maneuver around the REAL ID Act. In fact, ten states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are currently issuing driver's licenses or driving privilege cards — distinctly marked licenses with severely restricted use — regardless of immigration status. Additionally, all 50 states, Nebraska being the last to join just last month, have expanded the issuance of driver's licenses to eligible beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants certain undocumented youth a renewable work visa and exemption from deportation for a two year period.

The next logical step is for states to allow all residents to apply for licenses, regardless of immigration status. Making this change will undoubtedly lower the nationwide risks associated with unlicensed drivers. We can no longer ignore the day-to-day needs of immigrants by holding up the facade of "preserving national security."

Keren Murillo Umpierrez is an immigration-policy intern at the Century Foundation, where she researches humanitarian and immigrant-rights issues.  

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