Activists Pressing for Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

Colleen O'Dea | November 18, 2019 | More Issues, Immigration
Advocates will be back in Trenton today campaigning for a measure that would allow residents to apply for a license, regardless of their immigration status
Esder Chong is campaigning for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant activists plan to be back in Trenton again today, urging New Jersey lawmakers to pass legislation that would give the undocumented the ability to get a driver’s license, which many say could save them and their families from potential deportation.

“For the most menial traffic violation, my dad could be detained,” said Esder Chong, a senior at Rutgers University in Newark whose parents brought her to the United States from South Korea as a young child. “Thousands of undocumented people are driving without a license. It’s a safety issue, not just for us, but for everyone around us.”

Immigrants and advocates have been working for almost a year to gain passage for A-4743/S-3229, which would set up a two-tiered driver’s license system in the state and allow people who are undocumented to get a basic license; it would be good for proving you are allowed to drive and as an in-state ID, but would not pass as ID for federal purposes.

Fourteen states, including neighboring New York and Delaware, and the District of Columbia allow all those who are capable to get a license, regardless of their immigration status. Despite having 31 co-sponsors in the Assembly and 10 in the Senate, New Jersey’s legislation has yet to have a vote in any legislative committee.

With immigration issues remaining contentious throughout the nation, the licensing bill had been on hold due to this year’s Assembly elections. But with the election over, advocates had hoped the measure would advance and so far have been disappointed.

During a rally last Thursday, three Assembly members pledged to keep working for passage of the bill and urged activists to do the same.

‘You just have to be patient’

“New Jersey will do the right thing, you just have to be patient,” said Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson), who addressed the rally in English and Spanish.

“We have been told so often that we need to think about this bill, but come ‘lame duck,’” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), referencing the name given to the time between the election and the end of the legislative term in early January. He said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) “has been generous, thoughtful, deliberative, but now is the time … It is time to pass the bill. Respectfully, we need to send a message, as we are doing now, to the speaker and to every member of the General Assembly and the Senate.”

WNYC’s Matt Katz tweeted a statement from Coughlin following a post-election rally that drew hundreds to Trenton to support the bill: “The legislation to expand access to driver’s licenses to more residents remains a work in progress. I look forward to a thoughtful and thorough review of the final product at which time the bill will go through the standard legislative process.”

The Assembly Judiciary Committee, to which Coughlin referred the bill, is scheduled to meet today and the license bill is not on the agenda. The lack of action is especially noteworthy, given that Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), who chairs that committee, is a prime sponsor of the bill. In the Senate, the bill was referred to the transportation committee, which is chaired by Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), who is co-sponsoring the measure in the upper house.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said on a number of occasions that he supports the licensing effort and just needs lawmakers to send him a bill he can sign.

Real ID program

At 45 pages, the measure which would give the undocumented a way to legally drive, would ensure that New Jersey is compliant with the federal REAL ID Act while also creating an alternative standard license for those who are undocumented or do not want a REAL ID-compliant license. The REAL ID program strengthens documentation requirements for compliant licenses issued by states to meet minimum federal security standards. The program was recommended by the 9/11 Commission and passed by Congress in 2005.

The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission began rolling out REAL ID licenses two months ago. It is unclear whether or how that process would be affected by the pending legislation on licenses for the undocumented,

Credit: NJTV News
Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Bergen, Passaic) spoke at a Nov. 7 rally in Trenton for driver’s licenses for undocumented residents.

Immigrants who are undocumented and their family members worry that if they are driving and stopped by police for a minor traffic violation, they will be charged with driving without a license — and that that could put them on the radar of federal immigration authorities who could then come after them, detain them and try to deport them. And Chong warned that she and the thousands of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, could also be at risk of losing existing regular driver’s licenses, if the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to end that program. The DACA program allows recipients to obtain a Social Security number, to work and go to school, and to drive.

“You can’t rely on DACA anymore,” continued Chong, who founded the RU Dreamers organization at Rutgers-Newark to give information to other DACA recipients and undocumented students and mobilize them to advocate for themselves and their peers. “I mean, how long are we going to wait until we take action in New Jersey? Are we going to wait until the worst-case scenario, when thousands of DACA recipients lose DACA? Right now is really the time for New Jersey to step up and support New Jerseyans.”

Laura, a high school senior who came to New Jersey from Colombia with her parents, is unable to drive because the federal government has not been taking new applications for DACA. Going to college next year is going to be difficult if she can’t drive, she said. It will either mean walking to the train station, taking the train, then walking to campus or taking a rideshare and, she said, then “I have to spend a lot more money.”

Trying to help her mother

Like her friend Laura, Karen does not have DACA protection. She wishes she could drive so she could ensure the safety of her mother, who runs a small restaurant about 20 minutes away in a neighboring city and must be at work at 4 a.m. to get ready for the breakfast crowd and can’t drive herself there. (Both were unwilling to give their last names because of their lack of DACA protection.)

“I worry: Will she be safe?” Karen said. “It’s like really scary. Just seeing her struggle with that is giving me anxiety. I don’t know; I just feel like if I was able to drive her there, everything will be good, but I’m not. It’s just really difficult.”

A policy paper issued earlier this year by the progressive group New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that some 425,000 immigrants would benefit from the measure, as well as individuals with very low incomes and those recently released from prison. Those in the latter groups may not have the money or all the proper documents needed to get a license currently in New Jersey.

While the most recent bill was introduced last December, there have been efforts in New Jersey to allow the undocumented to drive dating back a decade or more that failed due to lack of legislative or gubernatorial support or both.

Since the proposal of the current measure, immigrants and advocates have held numerous marches, rallies and other actions in support of this bill. Last Thursday, they visited legislative offices seeking lawmakers’ support. They plan to return today to further gauge who is backing the measure. They have formed a coalition, Let’s Drive NJ, that includes unions, trade groups, clergy and community immigrant organizations.

In addition to helping the undocumented drive legally and making the roads safer for all drivers, the measure could put money in the state’s coffers. Advocates say the newly licensed could pay at least $21 million in the first three years of implementation in fees for learner’s permits, driver’s licenses and vehicle title fees.

The legislators who addressed the group lobbying in Trenton last Thursday asked them to remain patient and keep fighting.

“We’re almost there,” Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) told the immigrants organized by Make the Road New Jersey. “I think hopefully we have enough support in the General Assembly and in the Senate, frankly, to get this done.”