Driver's Licenses and Unauthorized Immigrants

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Possessing a driver's license can give a person more privileges than simply being allowed to operate a motor vehicle. A driver's license or state-issued ID card also works as an identification card. Should driver's licenses and other ID cards be issued to unauthorized immigrants?

Each state issues its own driver's licenses and establishes requirements for obtaining those licenses. For example, all states require that people attain a certain age before being allowed to drive.

A driver's license can serve many purposes beyond allowing someone to operate a motor vehicle. Employers require valid identification of their employees. Government agencies need identification from people applying for benefits, such as Medicaid. Banks require valid identification for people to open accounts, and airlines need driver's licenses or ID cards to identify their passengers.

In some states, it has been proposed that unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for driver's licenses and state ID cards. The question is: Should undocumented immigrants, numbering as many as 12 million, be allowed to apply for a state-issued driver's licenses and ID cards?

Supporters of allowing licenses to the undocumented focus their arguments primarily on three issues: traffic safety, automobile insurance, and hit-and-run drivers. Opponents focus mainly on two issues: national security and condoning illegality.

Traffic Safety

Supporters point out that no one can get a driver's license without passing a basic driver skills test. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has issued a report called "Unlicensed to Kill" that indicates a direct connection between increased licensing of drivers and increased traffic safety. "Drivers who operate a motor vehicle without a valid license," states the report, "are believed to be among the worst drivers on the road." The report cites evidence that unlicensed drivers are 4.9 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal automobile collision than licensed drivers.

Opponents of issuing the licenses, however, argue that offering licenses does not seem to curb people from driving without a license. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) reports: "Ten states do not require lawful proof of presence for an applicant to obtain a driver's license.... Despite this, in these 10 states 14.4 percent of those who cause traffic fatalities are not licensed or improperly licensed, compared to the national average of 13.6 percent."

Auto Insurance

Supporters argue that issuing licenses to unauthorized immigrants will result in more drivers on the road carrying insurance. With more insured drivers on the roads, anyone injured by a licensed immigrant driver will more likely be compensated for their injuries. In a 2004 policy statement, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) declared, "Restricting DLs [driver's licenses] results in unsafe roads, higher insurance rates, and overwhelmed court systems...."

Opponents argue that state auto insurance requirements will not force non-citizens to comply with the law. They argue that the requirement is just a formality that drivers can ignore. FAIR argues, "[E]ven if a state requires automobile insurance as a condition of getting a license, that does not keep an illegal alien from canceling the policy the next day."

Hit-and-Run Accidents

Supporters contend that the incidents of drivers leaving the scene of an auto collision (the crime of "hit and run") would decrease. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has said that issuing a driver's license requires certain security measures, like getting an applicant's photo and thumbprint. "We believe," says Bratton, "[these security measures] will reduce hit and run accidents."

Opponents believe that hit and runs would not decrease. FAIR has stated: "In many of the countries from which illegal aliens come, it is standard practice for motorists involved in accidents to flee the scene."

National Security

Opponents of the licenses stress that the driver's license issue is a national security concern. The 9/11 terrorist attacks focused attention on the availability of driver's licenses to non-citizens. FAIR has noted that "all of the 9/11 hijackers had driver's licenses or state non-driver's identification cards, which they were able to use when renting housing, opening bank accounts, and boarding planes." It argues that giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses does not improve security "because illegal aliens often use aliases and phony documents, so the alien's identity and residence is not established as a result of the driver's license process."

Congress responded to the 9/11 issue by passing the REAL ID Act in 2005 (or "Real ID"). That law requires each state to have documentation of a person's immigration status before it can issue a driver's license or ID card to that person. Otherwise, federal agencies will not accept the ID card for "official purposes" (such as boarding a plane). The states are either supposed to comply with the federal requirements or apply for an extension.

As of April 2008, all 50 states had received an extension, with many state legislatures complaining about the high cost to implement the law. If a state does comply with Real ID, then that state's government has to approve regulations, hire additional staff, and often improve technology to identify applicants for licenses. For example, it is estimated this would cost $73 million in the state of Maine. In Maryland, the estimate is $30 million. In both states, the federal government would only be required to contribute about $1 million to each state's costs.

Supporters of allowing licenses for the undocumented point out that the 9/11 terrorists did not need driver's licenses to board the planes because they had passports for identification. They also cite former White House counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke. He has stated that it will be years before states comply with the Real ID law and that meanwhile "it is far preferable for the state to know who is living in it and driving on its roads, and to have their photograph and their address on file than to have large numbers of people living in our cities whose identity is totally unknown to the government."

Condoning Illegality

Opponents believe that government should do nothing to endorse the actions of unauthorized immigrants. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has stated that "by giving illegal immigrants any form of official government ID ... [w]e essentially almost legalize their presence ... we recognize and officially give them the stamp of approval of the government."

Supporters respond that forbidding them from having licenses or ID cards will not stop them from migrating. "Immigrants do not come to this country to get a driver's license," states the National Immigration Law Center, "and they will not leave because they are ineligible for one."


For Discussion

  1. The debate focuses on five areas: traffic safety, automobile insurance, hit-and-run drivers, national security, and condoning illegality. What do you think are the strongest arguments in each area? The weakest? Why?
  1. Can you think of any additional pro or con arguments?

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