Undocumented Immigrants and Driver's Licenses

Will Licensing the Undocumented Make Our Roads Safer?

State Laws

The U.S. has an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants (sometimes referred to as “illegal immigrants”). Almost all states bar undocumented immigrants from getting a driver’s license. Only in Washington, Utah and New Mexico can undocumented immigrants obtain a driver’s license (they cannot use it as a government I.D. in Utah). 

Federal Policy

The Department of Homeland Security announced in 2012 that it will not seek deportation for undocumented aliens who commit minor traffic violations. In effect, this will mean that local enforcement will not detain the undocumented beyond the typical booking procedure (and may halt the practice of automatically impounding the cars used in those violations). Immigrants arrested for DUIs would not benefit from the program. 

The Dream Act 

In addition to the DHS rules, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (“DACA” and also known as the “Dream Act”), some undocumented immigrants -- people under 31 who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, and have no major criminal record -- would qualify for work papers and driver’s licenses. Because of political disputes about immigration policies, two states – Arizona and Nebraska – have opposed this requirement. California has passed legislation supporting the Act.

Will the Roads Be Safer?

Although it is not clear what proportion of unlicensed drivers are undocumented immigrants, experts seem to agree that undocumented immigrants amount to a sizeable slice of the pool of unlicensed drivers – certainly beyond the standard revoked/suspended license numbers. (In California, it is estimated that two million undocumented aliens are unlicensed drivers). In addition, it is agreed that traditional sanctions to keep unlicensed drivers off the road are ineffective for undocumented immigrants because “these drivers are often providing transportation for many other similarly undocumented aliens, and the transportation is essential for their employment.”

Proponents of highway safety generally support licensing immigrants. For one reason, the licensing process forces the applicant to complete a standardized pass-fail driving skills. As L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck said, "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" In addition, the licensing is predicted to increase the number of insured drivers (although a report in New Mexico has shown that this is not the case).

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