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Op-Ed: NJ should give all immigrants access to driver’s licenses

Beyond helping thousands of immigrants, the move would improve safety by reducing the number of unlicensed drivers

johanna calle
Johanna Calle

As the summer holidays come to an end and children head back to school, parents are getting ready to drive their kids to and from school and afterschool activities. However, as we prepare for the school-year routine, many parents, including undocumented immigrants, don’t have access to a driver’s license that would enable them to drive their kids to school safely. Without a license, immigrant families are forced to live in the shadows in New Jersey.

Repercussions from the mass ICE raid in Mississippi last month are reverberating throughout the country. Immigrant families are experiencing the back-to-school season with added anxiety, while entire communities are shuddering with fear as ICE moves ahead with their threats of detaining and deporting millions of immigrants in more mass raids. All the while, the administration of President Donald Trump continues to enact policies that are meant to keep immigrants out.

People like myself, my family, and thousands across the state have friends, neighbors, and family members who are negatively affected by the president’s continuous attacks on our communities. However, as a beacon of freedom for the world, we must stand up and fight for our country’s values. This means fighting against family separation, urging Congress to defund hate immediately. And while this is a federal fight, leaders in New Jersey can also take actions that will keep families together. Every family in New Jersey should be able to live safely and without fear.

New Jersey can stand up for every immigrant and improve road safety by allowing all residents who can pass the test and prove their identity to access a driver’s license. When more residents can get a driver’s license, they can register and insure their vehicles. This means every New Jerseyan and every family will be safer on the road with more licensed motorists. All New Jerseyans will benefit from this common-sense policy, and we can protect families who would otherwise be separated by deportation because of a lack of a driver's license.

Parents and caregivers need to be able to drop their kids off at school, take them to sports practice, and to the doctor’s for checkups, regardless of their immigration status. Accessing a basic driver’s license is a matter of fundamental dignity irrespective of federal immigration status. Currently, at least 719,0000 NJ residents lack access to a driver’s license. Many are immigrants but expanding access will also help low-income families and individuals re-entering society after incarceration, by providing additional options for documentation at the state Motor Vehicle Commission.

Lives lived in the shadows

I hear from undocumented immigrants and their children, DACA recipients, and TPS holders who worry about their family members who are not able to access a driver’s license. They are concerned about what would happen if their parents or grandparents drive without a license to take care of basic needs or in the case of an emergency. Many have to rely on ride-shares or taxis during a child's medical emergency.

Immigrants contribute in valued ways to our state. No New Jerseyan should have to worry that their family could be ripped away from them forever because we failed to address this simple issue. New Jersey can take a bold step and follow New York, Oregon, and 12 other states to ensure that families live without fear, which includes being able to drive safely on the road.

Most New Jerseyans depend on driving, and we know how essential a license can be to our everyday life. If we want to welcome immigrants, we must commit to ensuring that every family that calls New Jersey home can live with dignity by expanding access to driver’s licenses. While the federal government continues to betray the values of our country, we in New Jersey can do the right thing to make sure no child fears coming home to their parents detained by ICE. We can keep families together in our communities.

Johanna Calle is the director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice and a member of the Hackensack Board of Education. She is a formerly undocumented immigrant and now a citizen of the United States.

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