License Bill Puts NJ’s Undocumented in the Driver’s Seat — Legally

Colleen O'Dea | December 17, 2019 | Social, Politics
New Jersey passes bill that grants driver’s licenses to the undocumented, and helps them avoid ICE on the road
Elizabeth Chabla, second from left, waiting in the Assembly chamber for passage of driver’s license bill.

Undocumented immigrants should soon get the chance to drive legally in New Jersey, and avoid possible encounters with federal immigration authorities, with the passage Monday of a controversial driver’s license bill in both houses of the Legislature.

About 100 immigrants and advocates spent Sunday night marching, chanting and dancing outside or catching a few hours sleep on the floor of an office near the State House in Trenton. They were sweaty and tired but said it was worth it to see the long-sought measure pass.

“It was cold and very intense, but it was worth it to be here on this momentous occasion,” said Elizabeth Chabla, an organizer with Make the Road New Jersey, which has been a leader in the Let’s Drive NJ coalition that has been pushing for S-3229/A-4743. Saying the licenses will help several hundred thousand people, Chabla added, “It just makes sense.”

Advocates began pushing to provide a special driver’s license for the undocumented years ago, but thought they had a more realistic chance once Phil Murphy was elected governor, as he voiced his support for special immigrant licenses while campaigning. Although the governor’s office typically does not comment on specific legislation, Murphy said recently he backs licenses for immigrants as part of making New Jersey a “fair and welcoming state.”

“Gov. Murphy is pleased to see the Legislature move forward with a proposal to expand access to driver’s licenses and he looks forward to reviewing it,” said Alyana Alfaro, Murphy’s spokeswoman. “The governor believes New Jersey residents will be safer if more drivers are given the opportunity to earn a license, reducing the number of uninsured drivers on the road.”

License would not serve as federal ID

The bill, which passed without any Republican votes and with a few Democratic objections, would set up a two-tiered system. It will enable people who are undocumented to get a basic license that would prove a person is allowed to drive and serve as an in-state ID. It would not pass as ID for federal purposes.

Fourteen states, including neighboring New York and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia, allow anyone who is capable of getting a license to do so, regardless of their immigration status. Despite having multiple co-sponsors in both houses, the bill floundered for more than a year until after last month’s Assembly elections due to the controversial nature of the idea.

Crowd tries to enter Senate gallery for driver’s license vote.

Opponents have stressed two major points, saying they fear undocumented immigrants will use these licenses to vote illegally and, more basically, that people who are not properly in the country should not be allowed to get a driver’s license, which is a privilege and not a right.

“In short, we are rewarding people who have violated our laws,” said Assemblyman Eric Peterson (R-Hunterdon). “More disturbing … this bill attacks the integrity of our voting system and our rights and every individual’s right to vote.”

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), a main sponsor of the bill, said it will make the state safer by having immigrants — some of whom may be driving now without a license — pass written and driving tests.

“The bottom line is this: Our state will be safe,” she said. “We know this legislation will change thousands of lives.”

Immigrants and advocates have held dozens of rallies and other actions  to push lawmakers to vote, including Sunday’s overnight vigil. For those who wanted to be in the visitor’s gallery of one house or the other for the vote, getting into the State House early and getting on line was important, given the hundreds of others who converged on Trenton for other controversial votes, particularly the one seeking to get rid of religious exemptions for childhood vaccinations. Due to the overcrowding at the State House, not everyone could get in, so a nearby church opened its doors to some 700 immigrants to get warm and watch livestreams of the votes in each house.

Ecstatic outpouring

Those who were present in the galleries cheered as the votes went their way. After the Senate vote, yellow-shirted immigrants marched down the stairs pumping their fists and chanting. With night falling, dozens gathered outside the State House annex hugging, taking photos and some crying with joy.

“When I was younger, I played a lot of soccer, I played for a club team, and many times I couldn’t go with my soccer team because my father couldn’t drive,” said Daniel Escobar. “I did not have the same opportunities other kids had. Now the sky’s the limit. My little brother can have those opportunities.”

After the Senate voted for the driver’s license measure, supporters were ecstatic.

Advocates say the new licenses would benefit some 719,000 people, not just undocumented immigrants, but also the formerly incarcerated, domestic violence victims and anyone not interested in a federally compliant REAL ID license, which could be used to board an airplane and enter federal buildings.

“Most people don’t need a federally compliant license to go about their daily lives; most people just need something that they can use to drive, to get into bars and restaurants.” said Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU-NJ. “It means that 700,000 more New Jerseyans are going to have access to something that’s going to be integral in helping them to participate in the economy and making meaningful lives for themselves.”

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.

Avoiding ICE on the road

But mostly, this was a bill designed to help give the undocumented a way to drive legally and not have to worry about being cited for unlicensed driving and possibly come to the attention of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and possibly face deportation.

“This is a historic day for immigrant rights in New Jersey, a landmark day for New Jersey residents who have lived without access to a license or state ID card,” said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice. “A driver’s license is so much more than a driver’s license. It is a basic form of identification which shows that we are a part of this state and our communities. It brings immigrants out of the shadows. It means that every one of us, regardless of immigration status, belongs.”

Under the legislation, a standard license would be less expensive than a REAL ID license and the documentation requirement would also be somewhat less stringent. Additionally, documents provided to receive a license would not be considered public records and could not be disclosed to anyone without a warrant, court order or subpoena.

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.

Proof of the continued contentiousness of the bill came in the votes.

The Assembly passed the measure 42-30 with 5 abstentions. Five Democrats voted “no”: John Armato and Vincent Mazzeo of the 2nd District in Atlantic County, who won re-election by only a small margin last month; Eric Houghtaling of the recently blue 11th in Monmouth County and Paul Moriarty and Gabriela Mosquera of the usually safely blue 4th District in Camden. All five abstentions were Democrats.

The Senate approved the bill with the bare minimum of 21 “yes” votes. Two Democrats voted “no”: Dawn Addiego, who switched from Republican to Democrat earlier this year and represents the 8th District based in Burlington County, which elected two Republicans to the Assembly last month, and Fred Madden, who represents the 4th. Two others abstained.

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) had vowed last week not to vote for the bill, saying Democratic leaders had not prioritized other social-justice bills that would help African Americans and others. But he said on the floor that he would vote “yes” after getting agreement that at least one bill (S-3332) would move. That measure would allow certain people to perform community service in lieu of paying motor vehicle surcharges they owe.

“I know some things can’t be done today, but I expect them to be done in lame duck,” he said.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) spoke on the floor in an effort to nudge votes in support of the bill to “remind us what our goals are” as lawmakers, which is to help the diverse population of the state. She spoke passionately about mothers “who walk their children to school every morning, while I get the opportunity to put my daughter in a warm car seat” and fathers who “get on a bike at 5:30 in the morning in the rain, sleet and snow to make it to work on time, pay their taxes, pay their rent.”

Republicans, meanwhile, were unmoved and thwarted in an effort to amend the bill in the Assembly. In both houses, Republicans said they were introducing separate bills that would require every driver’s license applicant, regardless of status, to be checked through the New Jersey Wanted Person and Criminal Justice Information systems in the files of the National Crime Information Center.