Measure to Allow Driver’s Licenses for Unauthorized Immigrants Advances

After contentious hearing, Assembly Judiciary Committee votes 4-2 to release controversial bill

Wilmer Arteaga sang to support a special driver’s license for unauthorized immigrants during an hours-long hearing that was, by turns, contentious and highly emotional. Nine-year-old David, who wouldn’t give his last name, cried as he urged lawmakers on the Assembly Judiciary Committee to pass the bill that would enable his parents to get licensed and drive.

“I ask you guys to just stop, stop this, and just give us the licenses,” he cried. “Because I’m sick and tired of you guys just making these promises for like at least 18 years.”

Immigrants, advocates and family members described the hardships of trying to live and work in New Jersey without a driver’s license or state ID.

“Growing up, my mom worked as a housekeeper. And every day she walked and took the bus to work — whether it was 30 degrees outside in the freezing winter, or pouring a torrential thunderstorm,” said Christian Moreno Rodriguez.

“It sucks that New Jersey has decided to criminalize our community because they are well aware, after 15 years you can’t tell me you were not aware, people were driving without a license. People drive without a license because it’s a necessity,” said Li Adorno, an organizer at Movimiento Cosecha.

New Jersey is already implementing a federally mandated Real ID license. But the bill (A-4743) in effect allows a separate category of driver’s licenses that lets residents who are unable to prove lawful presence in the United States to get permits, standard New Jersey driver’s licenses or identification cards. Applicants would have to prove their identity, age, and New Jersey residency, but wouldn’t need to provide a Social Security number. Applicants would also have to pass a driving test and obtain auto insurance. And the special license could not be used to fly commercially, enter federal facilities like nuclear power plants, or vote.

Making the case for and against

“In my view, our roads are safer when our drivers are trained, tested, licensed and insured. The opportunity to obtain a driver’s license will open the door for hundreds of thousands of immigrants on our roads already to study and train for our testing,” said Motor Vehicle Commission chief administrator Sue Fulton.

Supporters claim an estimated 466,000 unauthorized immigrants who are old enough to drive could obtain a license. But opponents voiced concerns about document checks and voter fraud.

“I think this bill is reckless in that way. It’s not thinking of the consequences of the doors that would be opened up to a black market to help induce people coming to this state under false pretenses in order to get a driver’s license,” said Philip Rizzo, a pastor at City Baptist Church.

“I oppose this legislation because it confers privileges on those who have willfully and knowingly violated our laws. Additionally, there’s no check at the point of obtaining the driver’s license to ensure that people who are not legally permitted to vote, register to vote,” said Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon).

“I’m from Hudson County. I think there’s a greater concern for dead people coming back to vote than there are for noncitizens voting in New Jersey because it’s not happening today with folks who are not citizens and have driver’s licenses,” said Democratic Assemblyman Raj Mukherji.

Ultimately, the committee voted 4-2 to release the bill. Co-sponsor Assemblywoman Carol Murphy addressed nine-year-old David.

“The folks who come before us today are not asking to skirt the law. They’re asking to have the opportunities to feed their families, work in New Jersey and be part of a productive society,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “David, you are absolutely right. And David, I’m sick and tired, as well, of seeing promises not kept.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Transportation Committee. If it passes there, it could go before the full Legislature for a vote next week.