Amid cheers from a friendly crowd, Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday came to Elizabeth to sign a law allowing immigrants who are in the country without authorization to obtain a driver’s license, making New Jersey one of more than a dozen states to do so.
“This is the law of the land,” Murphy said, holding aloft the signed document, a move that electrified the immigrant families and advocates who crammed a meeting hall at the offices of Make the Road New Jersey for the event.
The group and other advocates have for decades pressed state officials to offer licenses to undocumented immigrants, saying the ability to drive legally is essential to getting a job and making it in New Jersey.
“This is all about people’s livelihoods and their ability to survive,” said Frank Argote-Freyre of the Latino Action Network Foundation. “Folks are sometimes living in the shadows and this will give them an ability to go out. It’ll be so much safer.”
The law, which passed both houses of the Legislature by small majorities, will offer residents who can’t show lawful residency in the United States a chance to apply for standard driver’s licenses by proving their identity, age and where they live in the state, without having to show a Social Security card. Like all drivers, those looking to get a license must pass a driving test and obtain auto insurance.
The document is not the equivalent of the new Real ID, the nationally recognized form of identification that will be required to fly commercially or enter federal facilities as of October 2020.
Also promising safer roads
During his remarks, Murphy touted the benefits of the new law.
“Our roads will be safer, and our ranks of uninsured drivers will be lower, and that’s good for all of us,” he said. “And we’re going to protect you and your information, and that of any other resident, who applies for a standard driver’s license. Insurance companies won’t be able to hike your premiums because you don’t have a Real ID.”
Cristian Dardon, who originally came to New Jersey from Guatemala, is one of the estimated 440,000 immigrants who could now qualify for a license. “I’m very joyful because I know many people across the state are going to be benefit from this,” he said through an interpreter.
Dardon said that he had held off having kids in part because he couldn’t drive legally. “Not being able to take them to school, to the hospital, to church — anywhere — is super impactful on their lives,” he said.
Some lawmakers who opposed the law said they believed lax regulations would allow people with criminal records to get a driver’s license or vote fraudulently.
Now the state Motor Vehicle Commission will meet to hammer out the infrastructure and regulations to implement the expanded licensing, a process that’s expected to take at least a year.
“We are going to continue to require documents. We’re going to continue to require six points of ID,” said Sue Fulton, administrator of the commission. “We already issue licenses to those with temporary visas, so we see a lot of foreign documents now. But we still want to do some more training with our folks and make sure we’re fully prepared.”
Advocates say the new program will generate more than $30 million in revenue from permit, title, license and registration fees over the first three years. But implementation will take preparation, they noted, including a lot of community education.
“You don’t just walk into a motor vehicle [office] and get one,” said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “There’s going to be a process. There are going to be tests. There are going to be procedures. There are going to be requirements.”
But proponents say the end result will be rewarding.
“What we’re doing is creating an opportunity for safer roads and more economic growth, something we can all agree is something that New Jersey needs,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.