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Push to Grant Driver's License to NJ's Undocumented Residents

Supporters say the card would help thousands of undocumented to drive legally, that it would improve road safety, and stimulate the state’s economy

NJ Immigrants

Advocates and activists from immigration rights groups around the state are calling on New Jersey lawmakers to denounce the “hateful rhetoric” of this year’s contentious presidential election by moving forward with legislation they say will help thousands of undocumented families while at the same time improve road safety and boost the state’s economy.

They also said that, contrary to opponents’ complaints, recipients of the licenses would not be able to use them for anything else, since they would come with specific language to that effect printed on them. The bills (A-868/S-292) requires that the front of the driver’s license issued contain the statement “Federal Limits Apply," and that the back include the statement “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.”

The measures would allow undocumented immigrants in the state to apply for a drivers license with proof of New Jersey residence and regardless of whether they can prove "lawful presence" in the U.S. It could only be used for driving purposes, not as an accepted ID for, say, buying guns or flying.

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“We're here to urge our state politicians to publicly stand against the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric of the presidential election,” said Johanna Calle, program coordinator at NJAIJ. “Immigrants of all walks of life have been targets of hate and discrimination. We have been scapegoated regularly, while fear and ignorance is used against our communities. In New Jersey the rhetoric affects millions of people.”

With the third largest immigrant population in the country, New Jersey has between 250,000 and 550,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state, according to various estimates. About 400,000 workers — about 8.6 percent of the state’s workforce — are undocumented.

In 2009, a blue ribbon commission convened by then-Gov. Jon Corzine named as a top priority the implementation of a “system that allows all individuals living in the state to obtain a driver’s license,” saying that unlicensed drivers pose a danger to the larger community. Since then lawmakers have repeatedly introduced legislation to that effect, proposing programs whereby potential drivers could obtain a permit after first proving their identity, date of birth, and residency. Other conditions included passing a written driver's test and then a road test, similar to those required for other New Jersey drivers.

But those efforts have repeatedly failed, stymied by opponents who say such a law would compromise the safety and security of legal residents in the state. They point to recent terror attacks at home and abroad, arguing that unless proper federal documentation is a prerequisite to getting a license, then licenses could fall into the wrong hands, such as those of criminals who might use them to buy guns. When they haven’t opposed it outright, critics of the idea have demanded that the measures come with additional requirements, such as criminal background checks and fingerprinting.

The latest push came last year, when the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee sent up the two bills addressed yesterday. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, the legislation lists 12 categories of identification and proof of residency documents that could be used by undocumented residents seeking a driving card; these include consular ID or valid passport; birth certificate; deed, property tax bill, lease or utility bills; marriage license or divorce certificate; school records, or other federal documentation.

Lawmakers put the brakes on that legislation, though, when Gov. Chris Christie said that if such a bill made it to his desk “it would be vetoed immediately.” Without executive or super majority support (60 percent), the legislation has since languished.

Advocates yesterday called on lawmakers to take new action, saying now is the right time to bring relief to countless undocumented residents in the state who are forced to drive without licenses or find other means of transportation to get to and from work. It would help send the message, they said, that New Jersey does not accept a national political climate that’s been less-than-welcoming to immigrants.

Debate over how to handle the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents has been a defining issue in this year’s hyper-partisan presidential race. Real estate magnate Donald Trump, the embattled Republican nominee, has riled the GOP base with controversial immigration reform proposals, which include calls for mass deportations and a vow to build a giant wall along the southern border to keep out illegal migrants. Earlier in the race, he took flak for calling some undocumented immigrants “drug dealers” and “rapists.”

That’s led many to criticize Christie, who serves as chair of Trump’s White House transition team and who has continued to support him despite growing intra-party defections, for enabling Trump and that kind of talk.

“We're proud to be in a state where we have seen our leaders criticize much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the racist rhetoric, scapegoating, and demagoguing that has emerged in this election both from our own governor and from others running for president,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “But that pride has a limit. Because words are simply not enough. They're not enough anymore when we're told over and over that immigrants are dangerous, or a threat to our safety. Words are just not enough when some try and blame immigrants for crime or our economic woes, who try and build walls between us and our neighbors.”

A total of 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, have so far passed legislations expanding driving privileges to their undocumented residents. Quijano’s bill is based on legislation in California.

Advocates at yesterday’s press conference told of their own experiences working with or living as undocumented residents in the state. They argued that expanding driver privileges would go a long way toward easing the strain on families and countering the stigmatization they feel from those outside their communities. Rossana Madeira, an undocumented immigrant and Make the Road New Jersey member living in Elizabeth, told of how her sister-in-law was recently detained by police after being caught driving without a license.

“She's a single mom, she also has two daughters who were born here, and she needs to drive to get to work,” Madeira said through a translator. “When she was stopped by the police, the police officer humiliated her, told her she would be arrested the next time she was caught driving without a license. She now joins so many other immigrants who fear driving, who fear it everyday, because they don't have a driver's license. She's been living here for 15 years, she pays her taxes, and she deserves respect.”

Supporters of the bill said the issue is public safety, as undocumented residents are now forced to drive without any prior testing or understanding of road signs and symbols. Because they don’t have licenses they also often don’t have insurance, which can affect legal residents in the event of an accident.

They also said that, contrary to opponents’ complaints, recipients of the driving privilege cards would not be able to use them for anything else, since they would come with specific language to that effect printed on them. The bills (A-868/S-292) require that the front of the driver’s license issued contain the statement “Federal Limits Apply," and that the back include the statement “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.”

“I want people to understand that this is not just helping one community, but is helping New Jersey as a whole,” said state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), who joined advocates yesterday. “This is about safety, this is about helping families, this is about everybody who are driving in New Jersey should have a driver's license regardless of their immigration status. This is the right thing to do to protect everybody in New Jersey.”

A sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Cruz-Perez said there have been few developments with the legislation since Christie announced his opposition last year. She and Quijano are working to build bipartisan support to pass it with a majority in the Legislature, but it’s unclear when that will come together.

“I served in the military. My father served, my daughter served, my niece, nephew, everybody is serving,” Crus-Perez said. “I feel proud to defend this country and sign a blank check that says I am willing to die for this country. You know what makes us so unique? We are the melting pot of the world. People from different races and different countries came over here to make what is called the United States. So I find it highly offensive, highly offensive, anybody making comments disparaging immigrants. Because we are the melting pot. That's what makes us great.”

The original version of this story contained several inaccuracies that have been corrected.

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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