Bill Would Put Undocumented Residents on Road to Driving Privileges

Hank Kalet | March 24, 2014 | More Issues
Advocates cite improved safety, access to work; opponents complain that it encourages illegal residency

Credit: NJTV
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union)
Legislation that would extend New Jersey driving privileges to the state’s estimated half-million undocumented immigrants has once again been introduced by lawmakers, though the bill’s final shape and when it might be considered remain up in the air.

The legislation –- A-2135 and S-1696 — would create a driving privilege card that could be used only for driving and not for other purposes, such as government identification.
To qualify for the card, which would be valid for four years, potential drivers would have to prove both identity and residency, pass a written driver’s test similar to the exam required for other New Jersey drivers, and then pass a road test.

The legislation lists 12 categories of identification and proof of residency documents that could be used by undocumented residents seeking a driving card, including 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.

Pro-immigration groups are generally supportive of the bill, though they have concerns about its language. Immigration-control groups are opposed because they say state government should not be making it easier for those living in the United States illegally.

There are between 250,000 and 550,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, according to various estimates. About 400,000 workers – about 8.6 percent of the state’s workforce – are undocumented, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, meaning the bulk of the undocumented population is made up of adults.

Ten states, mostly on the West Coast, allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally, according to the National Immigration Law Center in Washington. An 11th, Oregon, has passed legislation extending driving privileges, but it is on hold pending a state referendum. Nine other states, including New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, have introduced driving-privilege legislation.

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), one of the prime sponsors, said the bill is based on legislation in California and was written after consultation with national groups that have been working on the issue. The bill is also sponsored by Joseph Cryan (D-Union) in the Assembly and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) in the Senate.

The bill is “a work in progress,” Quijano said, explaining that it will require the input of the state Motor Vehicle Commission, immigration advocates, and others in the Legislature. There is no timetable for holding committee hearings or scheduling a vote, she said.

Vitale said there are no “timetables or time limits,” adding that more work needs to be done to perfect the bill before hearings can be scheduled.

“We will be making sure we have language in the legislation that makes sense, and then we will go out and get support among our colleagues,” he said.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has not taken a position on the bill, and said he plans to meet with advocates and others. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

This is not the first New Jersey effort to extend driving privileges to the undocumented community. Bills have been introduced in the past but died without gaining traction among elected officials.

A 2009 report from a blue-ribbon commission appointed by then-Gov. Jon Corzine recommended that the state “implement a system that allows all individuals living in the
state to obtain a driver’s license or a driver’s privilege card,” saying that unlicensed drivers pose a danger to the larger community.

No action was taken on the recommendation at the time, though advocates for the undocumented have consistently identified access to driver’s licenses as a priority, especially in the absence of federal immigration reform.

“We are very pleased that this conversation is happening,” said Amy Gottlieb, of the Newark-based Immigrant Rights Program of the
American Friends Service Committee. “It is one that (began) a long time ago in New Jersey and, hopefully, we can get on a track now where people recognize how important this is.”

Not everyone agrees. Gayle Kesselman of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control said the bill is an example of “state government not serving its citizens.” The bill only “makes life easier for people who are not supposed to be here.”

“I don’t even know why we are debating this,” she said. “The fact is illegal immigration decreases wages and employment opportunities for citizens and legal residents.”

“Why are we making life easier for people who are taking jobs away from unemployed New Jersey citizens?” she added.

Vitale said it is not a question of making things easier, but one of safety. If passed, he said, the legislation would mean fewer unlicensed, unregistered and uninsured drivers on the road.

“We are not suggesting that we give them citizenship or that this will be a path,” he said. “This is one initial thing that will make the road safer and address the cost of insurance to a lesser degree in New Jersey.”

Undocumented immigrants who drive now are not tested to see if they know the rules of New Jersey’s roads, he said. That would change if this legislation passes.

“This will provide accountability for people in terms of being able to drive on the roads in New Jersey,” he said, because it will require everyone to follow the same processes and the same rules.

Quijano agreed.

“We have to look at it realistically,” Quijano said. “We have a lot of undocumented immigrants driving today and it has become a safety issue. The more individuals on road who know how to drive, who have taken a driver’s license test and a road test, the better it is for all of us.”

Gottlieb said the bill could have a potentially enormous impact on both road safety and the lives of immigrant workers.

“New Jersey is a car state,” she said. “It is a state that does not have an efficient public transportation system and it is a challenge to get from one place to another without a car.”

Immigrant workers often are tied to their jobs because of a lack of transportation, said Marien Casias Pabillon, executive director of New Labor, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. Or they are forced to use shuttle-van services provided by temporary agencies that can cost upward of $35 to $40 a week, are often overcrowded, and have spotty safety records, she said.

“I know our members are really interested in having authorization to drive,” she said. “They see it as flexibility” and they are willing to pay the cost of a license, insurance and a car.

Public transportation is costly and mostly unavailable, she said. Getting from New Brunswick to a Lakewood warehouse job, which some members attempt to do, is nearly impossible, she said.

“Sometimes you have to keep the jobs offered in the local vicinity, but that are not good jobs,” she said.

Gottlieb and others in the immigrant rights community said they support the concept of the legislation but are withholding an endorsement until it can be further examined.

“The overarching goal for us is to have a license that puts everybody on the same playing field,” she said. “To have a separate kind of card for people who cannot get immigration status right now raises some concerns, which is why we want to take some time and to hear from the community.”

Kesselman said the immigration-control community plans to challenge the bill.

“We plan to fight it,” she said. “I think there are some national groups that I hope will get involved. This is all in the planning stages, but we plan to fight.”