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Helping Undocumented Immigrants Get on the Road to Economic Stability

Coalition of advocacy groups asks towns, counties to endorse bill allowing those in this country illegally to apply for driver’s licenses

motor vehicle commission

A coalition supporting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is hoping to win over the state -- – one municipality and county at a time.

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of 22 church, labor and immigration advocacy groups, has convinced nine governing bodies – most recently the Jersey City Council on May 26 and the Union County Board of Freeholders on May 28 – to pass resolutions supporting A-4425.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano of Union County, would require the state Motor Vehicle Commission to issue licenses to anyone who qualifies for a license under current state law, regardless of whether they can “prove lawful presence in the United States.” Applicants would have to pass the same written and road tests as other drivers and pay the same fees. In addition, the MVC could assess an additional fee of up to $50. (Democrat Reed Gusciora of Mercer County added his name as a primary sponsor on June 1.)

Sara Cullinane, a staff member with Make the Road New Jersey, an Alliance partner, called the Union County vote a “very important step in terms of building a statewide campaign and statewide pressure for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.”

“We’re organizing all across the state,” she said, adding that the group is in conversations with state lawmakers rs about the legislation.

Quijano introduced her bill on May 11. A Senate version of the bill sponsored by Democrat Joseph Vitale (Middlesex) was introduced the same day.

Quijano’s bill replaced legislation replaced an earlier version, co-sponsored by then-Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), which would have granted driving privileges to undocumented residents by issuing them something similar to a license but requiring creation of a separate driving-privileges card..

According to the National Immigration Law Center, 10 states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico already grant driving privileges to immigrants who are in the United States illegally. D.C. and six of those states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico and Washington – grant regular licenses, while Illinois provides a temporary visitor’s license, Nevada, Utah and Vermont offer driving privilege cards, and Puerto Rico allows for a provisional license.

Legislation designed to grant driving privileges to undocumented immigrants has been under discussion in New Jersey for about a decade, but has gained little traction. Both Gov. Jon Corzine and Gov. Chris Christie have opposed giving licenses or driving privileges to those not in the country legally and, while bills have been introduced during four of the last legislative sessions, none have made it to a committee hearing.

It is unclear whether the Quijano and Vitale bills will pass that hurdle – representatives of state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) did not respond to requests for comment – and the bills are is unlikely to be scheduled for committee hearings until the fall, most likely after the Nov. 3 general election.

In addition, Christie has maintained his opposition, saying on on radio station 101.5 that licenses are the "most important form of identification” and he could not “give driver's licenses to people who I cannot be sure who they are.”

Quijano is hopeful that the coalition effort will demonstrate that there is a groundswell of support for the legislation in the state, and that the governor will change his mind.

“I believe that once we get through all of the towns and cities and counties, it will be a groundswell,” she said. “It is a public safety issue. If you are driving down the Turnpike, don’t you want to know that the person to your left, your right and behind you knows the rules of the road and has insurance?”

Cullinane said the licenses would reduce the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers, ensure vehicles are maintained and inspected, and help lower insurance rates by adding more paying drivers into the insurance risk pools.

“When the people who are on the roads are all tested, when immigrants are able to apply for driver’s license and become credentialed drivers, it makes it safer for everyone,” she said.

Carlos Rojas, an organizer with Alliance partner Faith in New Jersey, agreed.

“We want to make sure that all drivers are licensed, registered, and insured properly,” he said. “Anybody would feel safer knowing that everyone on the roads has been tested. And giving undocumenteds the opportunity to register with the (MVC), to register their cars, to get licensed and be trained – it is a public safety issue.”

Advocates said the new legislation was an improvement over the bill introduced in 2014 because the original driving-privileges cards potentially created a second class of drivers and might have stigmatized undocumented immigrants.

Rojas said the change was made to prevent undocumented drivers from being treated differently or potentially being targeted because of their status. The organizers wanted all drivers to have the same documentation “so we’re not putting undocumenteds in danger by issuing a different document.”

That was a consideration, Quijano said, adding that the newer version was based on the California law that took effect in January.

“California is a much bigger state, and we thought we could do best practices and look at what they are doing so we don’t have to repeat the (license’s) design,” she said. “Homeland Security already approved the California license.”

The California law, passed in 2013, reversed a nearly 20-year-old ban on giving licenses to undocumented immigrants. Licenses were granted to the undocumented until 1994, Quijano said, when California revoked the privilege.

“It took them 20 years to get it back,” she said. “I figured that, here is a state with a long history of dealing with this issue, so it would be good to model our approach on theirs.”

She is planning a visit to California in the summer to see how California handles the processing of licenses. She said she will to talk with administrators and advocates, and gather information she hopes will help move the New Jersey bill forward.

Cullinane said the driver’s license push – along with the successful effort to grant in-state tuition to undocumented resident students, as well as initiatives dealing with wage theft and college aid – are especially important because of the “absence of immigration reform” at the national level and “with Obama’s executive action tied up in courts.”

“Granting driver’s licenses is something legislators can do to support their immigrant communities,” she said.

Like Quijano, however, the advocates expect a difficult road ahead, which is why they have decided to try to build momentum from the ground up.

“We wanted to pursue a grassroots community effort, and we started by engaging city councils, mayors, and counties to get them to ask the state, state legislators and the governor, to consider our bill for a vote,” Rojas said.

Cullinane said Union was just the first of many counties likely to sign on. There are groups working in Hudson, Morris and Essex and the eight cities that have signed – Jersey City, Dover, New Brunswick, Plainfield, Perth Amboy, Camden, Elizabeth and Bridgeton – while inroads have also made in Middlesex, Camden and Cumberland counties.

Rojas, who worked on the effort to pass the Tuition Equality Bill two years ago, said the Alliance’s goal is to “have the bill on the governor’s desk before the session ends in January.”

“The first hurdle is getting it passed the Senate and the Assembly,” he said. “Ultimately, we are putting this on the governor’s radar. In 2013, he surprised people by signing (in-state tuition), so nothing is set in stone.”

Rojas said granting licenses would generate revenue for the state through license and registration fees, expand the auto-insurance pools, and allow many undocumented immigrants to get better jobs.

“We are talking potentially about 450,000 undocumented immigrants in the state that would benefit,” he said. “Needless to say, there would be benefits to the economy through their being able to buy cars at dealerships and paying for insurance and fees.”

Rossana Madeira, an unauthorized immigrant now living in Elizabeth, said through a translator that access to a driver’s license would help families like hers economically.

“The license is like the motor that makes our lives work,” she said. “We need to go to work. We need to get home. We need to pick up the kids. It makes life sustainable. Life without a license is impossible.”

Madeira, who is a childcare worker, currently pays someone to drive her to work, while her husband, who is a taxi dispatcher in New York, takes the train. He leaves for his job at 5 p.m. to start work at 7 o’clock, and finishes at 2 a.m. He then has to wait until 5 a.m. for the first train – regular train service out of the city ends at about 1:30 a.m. – and doesn’t get home until 7, she said.

Her husband arrived in the United States from Brazil in 1989 with a work visa and was given a driver’s license. He started working as a taxi driver and eventually started his own taxi company. She arrived from Mexico in 1990 and started working with him at their company, which ran four cars and a number of employees. They bought a house and had two children – now adults – who were born in New Jersey and are citizens.

They were doing well economically, she said, until her husband lost his visa in 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, due to changes in regulations. That’s when he lost his driver’s license, as well. Without the license, he had to give up the taxi business and he lost his home. Now, she said, they barely earn enough to get by.

“It devastated us financially,” she said. “I always had a dream that my daughters could go to college and that I could pay for it. I used to be economically stable, working-class stable, but not now. Now we have to struggle to make ends meet.”

Rojas said Madeiras’ story is fairly common.

“Many undocumenteds are stuck,” he said. “They are unable to move up and pursue economic mobility. They can’t drive, so they can’t get better employment opportunities.”

Madeira said a license “would change everything, not just for myself, but for many families I know.”

“It would give us the opportunity to buy a car, to earn more, to buy a home,” she said. “It would open doors to more stability.”

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