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Campaign Ramps Up to Let Undocumented Immigrants Drive Legally in NJ

With a supportive governor in office, new focus on legislation that went nowhere for years. No Republican enthusiasm evident

Let's Drive NJ
Credit: NJTV News

New Jersey will see a boost to its economy and safer roads if it passes legislation that would create a two-tiered driver’s license program for undocumented immigrants, according to advocates. The two-tiered system, which is now being introduced in the state Legislature, meets federal security standards and would allow undocumented immigrants in the state to drive legally.

Advocates have been making a serious push to get the legislation passed, as they’ve held numerous candlelight vigils, press conferences — and even a hunger strike — in support of it.

For more than a decade, lawmakers have been talking about expanding driving privileges to the state’s undocumented residents. But legislation to accomplish it has stalled in both houses due to a lack of support from legislative leaders and governors.

That has changed.

Gov. Phil Murphy expressed support during his campaign for extending driver’s licenses to the undocumented, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in September on a call-in radio show on 101.5 that he would support them as well, though neither has commented directly on the new bills.

The legislation, which has been introduced without details in both houses of the Legislature, would allow the state to meet the federal REAL ID requirements created in 2005 and that began to be phased in around the country beginning in 2013. New Jersey has been operating under an extension and has until October 10, 2019 to meet federal standards. The program strengthens documentation requirements and sets rules for the production of state licenses, in order to ensure they can be scanned and checked against federal databases at airports, federal facilities and nuclear power plants.

New Jersey would be 13th state to allow the licenses

New Jersey’s current six-point driver’s license system and photo licenses fall short of the act’s requirements.

The bills — S-3229 in the Senate and A-4743 in the Assembly — would create “two categories of driver’s licenses and identification cards” and allow “residents unable to prove lawful presence in (the United States) to receive permits, and standard driver’s licenses or identification cards.” The legislation, if passed, would make New Jersey the 13th state to provide driving privileges to the undocumented.

The bills were introduced by Democrats Joseph Vitale (Middlesex), Joseph Cryan (Union), Teresa Ruiz (Essex), Nilsa Cruz-Perez (Camden), and Nellie Pou (Essex) in the Senate and Democrats Annette Quijano (Union), Raj Mukherji, Gary S. Schaer, Gordon M. Johnson, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Joe Danielsen in the Assembly.

The text of the bills had not been released as of yesterday, and they have yet to be assigned to committees for hearings. It remains unclear when a finished bill will be available, and the sponsors have not commented beyond the release of a press release.

Ruiz said in an emailed press release that the proposed legislation would both aid immigrants and help the state, by ensuring that all drivers are tested and licensed and that they carry insurance. Immigrants, she said, are forced to “rely heavily on public transportation,” which is cumbersome and can force many to “take the risk of driving, despite not having access to drivers’ licenses.”

Safer roads?

“Offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to a legal drivers’ license would reduce their chances of encountering legal troubles while trying to make a living, while also making the roads safer for all New Jerseyans,” she said.

Most Republican legislators have not taken a public position on the new bills, but Ocean County Republicans Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove issued a statement in January, May and again yesterday saying they were opposed in principle to granting undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally in the state.

The GOP legislators said the state needs to focus on “[e]ssential programs and services for legal residents (which) are on the chopping block,” rather than prioritize “illegal aliens” with programs like in-state tuition, state tuition aid, and now driver’s licenses.

“The price tag of these policies keeps rising for taxpayers but not for the persons who are mostly benefitting,” the statement said.

Objection: ‘serious homeland security issues’

“Residents face the prospect of waiting longer in (Motor Vehicle Commission lines) while illegal aliens are applying for a driver’s license with limited identification documents, such as the ones legal residents are required to produce,” they added.

They also objected to a secondary license, which they said would create “serious homeland security issues” that “simply cannot be disregarded for the sake of political expediency.”

“Since this issue was first raised during the Corzine Administration, our (Republican) delegation has maintained its vehement opposition to giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens,” they said. “Now that establishing New Jersey as a sanctuary state is all but Trenton’s endorsed policy, it is important residents prepare for this policy debate so that the rights of legal residents are respected.”

Other Republicans have echoed some of these sentiments; and most Republicans are not expected to support the bills. For instance, Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Morris County Republican who lost to Democrat Mikie Sherrill last month in a bid for an open seat in the 11th Congressional District, said during the campaign that he opposed “any attempt to treat those here illegally better than United States citizens.” And Ocean County Republicans Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and Dave Wolfe used similar language in criticizing state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s directive limiting local and state law enforcement interaction with federal immigration authorities.

Helping more than the undocumented

Johanna Calle
Johanna Calle, New Jersey Alliance of Immigrant Justice, right, speaks in support of driver's licenses for undocumented residents at the recent vigil in Woodbridge.

Advocates, however, say the bill is expected to help not just the undocumented but should also provide support to survivors of domestic violence, the formerly incarcerated, the homeless, transgendered individuals — even the elderly. The current six-point system has proven difficult for these groups, said Johanna Calle of the New Jersey Alliance of Immigrant Justice and a member of the Let’s Drive NJ coalition because they can have difficulty producing the right number of documents. Domestic assault victims, for instance, often flee their abusers without time to collect important papers, while the homeless generally have no official documentation.

REAL ID would still be the standard for flying, but a least there would be “another alternative for those people who may not be able to have all those things, but at least they can get on the road and drive.”

Activists acknowledge that some undocumented immigrants drive without licenses, or use false documents, which poses a danger to others on the road.

“You would want everyone else on the road that’s driving with you to also be tested and insured and have everything in order,” Calle said.

Carlos Castaneda, an Elizabeth resident who is working with Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant advocacy group, agreed.

“There’s no secret that there’s like thousands of people driving without a driver’s license,” he said.” So I think it will not only benefit the immigrant community getting this bill passed, but also will help generate a lot more income for the state” in insurance and motor vehicle fees. The U.S. Census estimates there are 475,000 undocumented residents in New Jersey.

New Jersey, says Carlos Rojas Rodriguez of Movimiento Cosecha, is “far behind ... on licenses for undocumented immigrants,” even though “New Jersey has the fifth highest concentration of undocumented immigrants” in the country.

Business owners who support measure

“There’s a real need for undocumented immigrants to have licenses, because that’s how they provide for their families, by driving into work,” he said. “That’s how they take their children to school and to medical appointments.”

“But also, the state benefits,” he added. “You know, some of the biggest industries in the state, agriculture, restaurants — the hotels and casinos along the Shore, the agricultural work in South Jersey, the big factories and the retail work in the northern part of the state — rely on immigrant labor. So New Jersey’s doing itself a disservice by not allowing them to have access to a driver’s license when they compose a foundation of the labor force in the state.”

The Let’s Drive NJ Coalition released a list of 150 business owners — of groceries, restaurants, beauty parlors and the like — urging the state to support the bills.

The liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective issued a report in January that said the states who already offered licenses to undocumented residents saw improved road safety. Those states have lower fatal accident rates and greater cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement, it said. The report also cited a Stanford University study which suggested that “licensed undocumented drivers have weaker incentives to flee because they are less likely to fear deportation.”

The economic argument

In addition, the NJPP report said more drivers would be licensed and insured, “boosting annual premium payments by about $223 million a year” and allowing the state to “collect $11.7 million in license fees.”

And the “newly-licensed drivers would purchase an estimated 84,000 automobiles, boosting vehicle registration fees by $3.9 million (assuming that newly purchased cars will be registered at a cost of $46.50 per registration).”

In the end, though, Rojas Rodriguez said the issue is about fairness, and activists plan to continue ramping up their efforts to get the legislation passed. Movimiento Cosecha has held a sit-in at the Elizabeth offices of the District 20 legislative contingent and several members are holding a hunger strike designed to draw attention to the need for licenses.

Let's Drive NJ
Credit: NJTV News
Let's Drive NJ supports legislation to let undocumented residents drive legally in New Jersey.

Let’s Drive NJ has held rallies and candlelight vigils, the latest of which was on November 26, the same day that Movimiento Cosecha announced its hunger strike.

Rojas Rodriguez, who was arrested during the Elizabeth sit-in, called the bills’ introduction a positive first step, but also a reason to keep up the pressure.

“We are also eager to see this piece of legislation move through the committees onto the Senate and Assembly floor” for a vote before the end of the year, he said. That was the promise that sponsors of the legislation made to activists, both “in private and in public,” he added.

Hunger strike

“We’re about three weeks away from the end of the (legislative) session,” he said. “So this is why we’re on a hunger strike.”

Castaneda, who emigrated from Peru 24 years ago at the age of 12, has protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by the Obama administration for children who came to the United States illegally. He has a license, but he is participating in the hunger strike. Castaneda said immigrants are here and they are driving because they often have no choice. That puts them at constant “risk of being pulled over for any traffic violation, or what have you.”

“And then once he or she gets pulled over, obviously he or she’s going to get a ticket that’s going to send him or her to court. And as we’ve seen in the past month, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents) have come to the courts and picked up people even before they get to see the judge for a traffic ticket.”

Another issue, advocates suggest, is a loss in potential income caused by the instability of having to rely on others for transportation. Jose Ortiz, for instance, works in a distribution center earning about $400 for a six-day work week. However, he pays $80 a week to a co-worker to take him from his home in Perth Amboy to his job in the Keasbey section of Woodbridge — a five-mile drive.

“Transportation has been a big headache and a hurdle,” he said through a translator.

Castaneda said Ortiz’s story is not unusual. Castaneda lives in Elizabeth and sees first-hand the difficulties and dangers faced by family members and neighbors, which play out in long work hours, limited opportunities, and constant vulnerability. If his co-worker gets sick, for instance, Ortiz cannot get to work and he loses a day’s pay, unless he calls a taxi, which would cost him more than he pays his friend.

Only driver in the household

In addition, Ortiz said he would like to open his own carpentry business but can’t because he has no license. And he and his wife — who works cleaning houses and offices — struggle to make medical appointments, grocery visits and getting their children to school.

Adriana Gonzalez, a DACA recipient who lives in Toms River and goes to school at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, said her family’s fate weighs constantly on her. She has to be conscious at all times of the needs of the rest of her family because until recently she was the only driver in the household.

“It’s just the practical, day-to-day issues” that are a challenge, she said, such as making sure her father can get to work or to a doctor’s appointment. Recently, her father had chest pains and he called her from Toms River while she was at school.

“I had to leave class and come home to go take him to the doctor,” she said. “He asked me ‘How far away are you? Are you able to come? If not, I might have to call a taxi or 911 to get to the hospital.’ That just shouldn't be that way.”

Her father used to drive illegally, but he was pulled over several times. He had a driver’s license from another state that expired and he was arrested. They were lucky to find a lawyer who got the charges dropped, but the “issue of deportation became very real.”

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