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Is It Time for New Jersey to License Undocumented Drivers?

Advocates and some legislators say it’s more than time. Besides, given NJ’s car culture, a fair number of undocumented residents are already behind the wheel — illegally

undocumented drivers
More than 1,000 advocates in favor of expanded access to driver’s licenses organized under the Let’s Drive NJ campaign gathered outside the State House annex yesterday.

Adriana Gonzalez, 24, of Toms River is a full-time student at The College of New Jersey, community organizer with the Latino American Legal Education Fund, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, and the only provider of transportation for her family.

“As the sole person in my family with a license, I’m the only one who can mobilize our family in any situation. So, if I’m in class, and there’s an emergency, I need to go all the way back (to Toms River) at any given time.”

She and her family have lived in New Jersey for more than 20 years after moving from Mexico, but her parents’ undocumented legal status in the country is preventing them from obtaining drivers’ licenses — putting more of a strain on their daughter’s time and ability to gain a thorough education she said. Now, Gonzalez is fighting for a pathway for all undocumented New Jerseyans to legally obtain a state license to operate a car.

Estimates show there are currently close to 466,000 undocumented immigrants of driving age in New Jersey, and though there are no numbers showing definitely how many are on the road, it’s likely that more than a fraction require a car for work, school, or medical needs. For those who need to drive, a lack of proper licensing means a lack of knowledge about state driving laws and a lack of insurance — both of which add up to a higher chance of costly accidents. And when an unlicensed, uninsured driver hits someone, the insured party or their insurer end up fronting the cost depending on their liability policy.

Twelve other states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, Washington — and Washington, D.C, currently have laws that allow undocumented individuals to apply for a driver’s license, and advocates say it’s time New Jersey joined them.

Is there life without a license?

“It’s unrealistic to believe that people can get by living their lives without a license,” she said. “Now that more undocumented students like me will be able to afford higher education, more won’t be able to go without a car. You’re opening a door to these students and then you’re closing another one in front of them.”

Gonzalez was one of nearly 1,300 supporters organized under the Let’s Drive NJ campaign gathered in the State House annex plaza in Trenton on Thursday to advocate for expanded access to driver’s licenses in the state. They say allowing undocumented, homeless, and other vulnerable populations that lack the necessary paperwork to obtain a license will massively improve both public safety and the economy in New Jersey by increasing the insured population. Their argument: If more people go through the system legally and are insured appropriately, it will mean less accidents and more accountability overall.

Talk about expanding licenses in the state has been rumbling for years — a bill was first introduced during the administration of Gov. Jon Corzine and re-introduced nearly every year since. Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie vowed to veto any such legislation that reached his desk, but advocates are pushing for a change to the law this session in particular because Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on it. Legislators have gotten behind it, and with an especially combative president in office, there’s renewed interest in the issue.

But as New Jersey continues to enact more progressive immigration policies — allowing undocumented youth to apply for college financial aid and opposing a census question that would push undocumented residents into the shadows—it’s yet to act on the issue of expanding access to driver’s licenses. Advocates say they can’t wait any longer.

“Promises are getting really stale,” said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Things are only going to get worse. The governor said he wanted to do this during the campaign; he said he was going to do it at the beginning of the year. Legislators have said that they really want to do this. We cannot afford to wait, and things are getting so much worse. It is really irresponsible to ask our community to wait any longer. We just cannot wait any more.”

The license legislation

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) is sponsoring a bill in the Legislature called the “New Jersey Safe and Responsible Driver Act” that would allow New Jersey residents to apply for and earn a state driver’s license without needing to prove lawful residence in the country.

Currently in New Jersey people need six points of identification to apply for a license. Acceptable point-carrying documents can be things like a passport, birth certificate, Social Security card, utility bill, foreign visa, and other relevant papers. Many undocumented state residents have the required points of ID that the law requests but there’s one major snag.

Before issuing a license, the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) has to run the applicant through the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system to verify the immigration status of all non-citizens who apply for or renew a driver’s license or non-driver ID at a state agency. If they can’t determine legal immigration status, the license won’t be issued.

The new bill would remove the requirement that the MVC inquire about an individual’s legal status and establish a separate class of license specifically geared towards those who cannot prove legal residence in the country.

The new license would allow that individual to drive a car but that’s it. It’s not considered a valid state or federal ID and can’t be used to board a plane, register to vote, or prove eligibility for employment.

Those individuals applying for such a license will still have to provide documentation proving identity, date of birth, and residency in the state: Things like a Social Security card, utility bill, school transcript, marriage license, or court document will be accepted. Applicants will also still have to pass the written and practical driving tests and all other standard licensing requirements.

There will also be a higher fee associated with the new license: The bill poses a fee of $50 to account for the administrative costs needed to process it.

Who is eligible?

According to a January 2018 report by New Jersey Policy Perspective, about 466,000 New Jersey undocumented immigrants are of driving age and would be eligible for a license under the new bill. Culling research from the other states that have passed similar laws, NJPP estimates that around half these eligible New Jerseyans — 233,000 in all — would receive a license within the first three years of implementation, leading to a 3.8 percent increase in the total number of licensed drivers in the state. More would likely apply, but it is assumed that many will not make it through the required written and road tests. The other states that have passed similar laws range from the highly liberal (California) to the ultra-conservative (Utah) and have made such licenses available for decades.

Gordon MacInnes president of the NJPP said “It’s hard to understand why we haven’t been able to get this enacted because the benefits are so tangible.”

He said according to his organization’s research, only about 20 percent of New Jerseyans who work take a bus or a train, the rest — included the unlicensed and undocumented — travel by car to their job.

“To do that you should have a license, you should be insured, and you should have to demonstrate that you know what the rules are. That’s all we’re suggesting,” MacInnes said.

MacInnes said passing the law will increase the insurance payments into the larger fund and spread the risk across a broader population; therefore, it would be of assistance to high-cost New Jersey automobile insurers. He said it also provides the benefit of feeling safer in the state, since those with some form of state-issued ID are more willing to report or provide testimony to police in the case of a crime.

“All of that benefits New Jersey society as a whole,” MacInnes said.

Insurance concerns

Insurance still remains one of the murkier areas of this issue. Since the undocumented population is difficult to gather statistics on, it’s tough to say exactly how many of them are currently on the road, driving without a license and subsequently, without insurance. The state MVC said it does not collect data related to individuals driving without a license.

The NJPP report estimates that since auto insurance is compulsory in New Jersey, under the new bill, thousands of drivers would obtain coverage, boosting annual premium payments by about $223 million a year and spreading the risk over a larger pool of people — thus potentially bringing individual premiums down.

But there are other factors at play, such as the high costs associated with insurance, the information available about how to get insurance, and the state’s economic situation. New Jersey has historically had some of the costliest car insurance rates in the nation, meaning the likelihood of someone taking the risk of going without insurance is higher.

Chris Stark, the vice president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey, said his organization has been working with the Let’s Drive NJ campaign to provide guidance on the insurer’s point of view when drafting the legislation. Stark said, “I think that when it comes to insurers, we look at a driver’s license as a driver’s license. The one good thing that will come out of this is it will inherently decrease the number of uninsured drivers on the road, which is good for insurers and consumers alike.”

According to Stark, the most common auto liability policy in New Jersey is known as the 100/300: It covers up to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per event, which protects an individual who gets into a car accident with someone who is uninsured or underinsured (UM/UIM). For those who don’t have UM/UIM coverage, the full cost has to come out of pocket.

If the new bill were to pass, he said there’s no way to guarantee that individual premiums would decrease as the risk is spread out, but “it is a societal benefit to have fewer uninsured motorists on the road.”

One issue, Stark said, is finding policies accessible to low-income individuals. New Jersey has what’s called the Special Automobile Insurance Policy (SAIP) initiative for limited car insurance that would only cost a dollar a day. However, undocumented immigrants would not be able to enroll since the policy requires applicants to be eligible for Medicaid for medical coverage. Stark said the alternative would be the state’s basic policy and standard policy that are lower-cost options but not as affordable as SAIP.

What’s more, solid numbers about how many immigrants operating a vehicle under a special driver’s license are insured are hard to come by. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts analysis reported that in Utah after its version of the law passed, 76 percent of the special license cardholders had vehicle insurance compared with 82 percent of those holding standard driver’s licenses.

However, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Insurance Regulation found no significant difference in insurance rates between states that require license applicants to prove their immigration status and those that don’t.

Longer lines at the DMV?

Aside from insurance costs, opening up the process to a flood of new license applicants will also put a greater burden on the system itself, which could mean longer DMV lines and higher processing costs.

MacInnes said those costs would be borne by the additional $50 fee for the special license.

The NJPP report found that New Jersey would collect $11.7 million in recurring license fees (assuming 233,000 people sign up for a license that costs $50 and expires every four years). The state would also be set up to receive $2.3 million in one-time fees for driving permits, since the 233,000 first-time license holders would be required to get permits before obtaining their new card.

Additional funds could be funneled into the economy through vehicle registration fees that could amount to an estimated $3.9 million (assuming new cars will be registered at a cost of $46.50 per registration).

Other issues

One of the most prominent concerns here is fraud. In 2017, a Maryland state legislative audit found that 826 driver’s licenses were issued in the state using counterfeit documents. Officials have since said they fired those responsible and closed the loophole, but those wary of New Jersey’s efforts fear a similar problem here.

Three Republican lawmakers from the 9th District have opposed the effort outright: Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf, and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove issued a statement in May that they would vote against the bill citing fraud and public safety concerns:

“There are the serious homeland security issues at stake which simply cannot be disregarded for the sake of political expediency. No, not every person in the country illegally is a security threat. Regardless, it would be completely irresponsible and negligent for New Jersey to circumvent proven, effective policies instituted to protect public safety,” they wrote in a statement.

Not just the undocumented

But the new law would not just apply to undocumented immigrants — though they would make up the majority of those affected.

Miguel Rodriguez, 56, from Camden said this law would help people like him — former prison inmates who are now homeless.

“To get a license, you need all these points of identification, an address or a bill or bank statement. I just came out of prison. I don’t have any of that,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t have a place to live. I am homeless. I had two forms of ID, the ID that they give you from prison, which is good for 30 days, and I also had my social security and birth certificate that I had to pay for and send out orders for, and my release paper. And they still turned me down … The system is messed up.”

Rodriguez said he had to make several calls and trips to various governmental offices to advocate for himself and eventually worked his way to achieving a license. He said he’s now committed to making the path easier for others.

But even if the bill passes, there are fears among its supporters that it could be used as an ledger for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target undocumented people.

“We’re really concerned about that,” Calle said. “We never would’ve imagined that we would have an ICE and a federal government that were going to overstep as much as they have, but the level of attacks have gotten so much worse. New Jersey would be the first to do this in the Trump era and so we have to be mindful of how we do this and do it right … Legislators have to make sure that the information and data is protected. That we’re not creating some default list of immigrants that ICE can just tap into and take with them. That is not what we need. We need to make sure that our community is protected from ICE targeting them.”

But as legislative talks carry on, people like Adriana Gonzalez will continue to make their voices heard.

“Driving is a privilege, and it’s one that we are trying to earn the right way. We are going about it in a way that is legal. We want a law passed that makes it easier not just for us but for everyone else,” Gonzalez said. “This is not just for the undocumented population but for everybody.”

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