Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants make sense

Sep. 16, 2013 @ 11:10 AM

The role that states should play in immigration reform has been a hot button issue across the country and here in North Carolina. Yet regardless of whether Congress comes to a consensus on a bill that would put an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, about 325,000 of those in North Carolina, on a path to citizenship, the truth is that the U.S. cannot deport 11 million people back to their countries of origin. It is not sensible, fiscally or morally.  
Sadly, one byproduct of the current gridlock is that many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina are forced to drive without a license just to carry on their daily lives because our state denies driver’s licenses to immigrants who do not have a Social Security number. However, a growing number of states across the country, including Maryland, Utah, and New Mexico, grant licenses to all qualified drivers regardless of immigration status and many others have considered similar proposals. North Carolina would be wise to follow the example of these other states. Doing so would make our roads safer for all drivers.
Undocumented immigrants in North Carolina drive out of necessity. Public transportation is inadequate for many people, particularly in rural communities, to get to their jobs or the grocery store, take their children to school or attend places of worship. They have to drive and will continue to do so, with or without a license. Granting a driver’s license regardless of immigration status would guarantee that those who are now driving without a license know the rules of the road.
Furthermore, a driver’s license would allow undocumented immigrants the opportunity to be adequately insured.  Illinois Governor Pat Quinn pointed out that his state’s passage of a measure granting driving privileges to the undocumented community would lower premiums for everyone by reducing an estimated $64 million in annual damage claims related to accidents involving undocumented immigrants.
North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Anthony Tata and members of our state’s law enforcement community have also promoted this message. In announcing why the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles would issue driver’s licenses to immigrants granted relief from deportation by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program earlier this year, Secretary Tata said that thanks to the new policy, “We will know who they are.  They will have a license. They will have insurance, and it will make our roads safer."  
Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes, accompanied by other sheriffs throughout the state, added, “We wanted something where they could show us that they are eligible to drive … and can do it safely. This is something law enforcement has needed. This is all about safety for us. This is about knowing who we are dealing with.” It is just common sense that these principles extend to people who, despite not having documentation, are already active members in our communities and have made North Carolina their home.
But the license cannot be the carrot before the proverbial stick. The driver’s license must not be a tool to adopt measures that may subject an already vulnerable community to the possibility of additional harassment and discrimination. Legislation proposed in the General Assembly earlier this year would have extended limited driving privileges to all immigrants, regardless of status, but it would have also ushered in an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law that would have legalized racial profiling and allowed police to stop and detain people based on their appearance. That is not the right approach for North Carolina.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to receive a driver’s license does nothing but make sure that everyone on the road knows how to drive. Notably, the states that adopted driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants still comply with federal requirements that limit the use of such licenses for voting purposes, benefits and air travel. They certainly haven’t “legalized” the undocumented immigrants living and working in their states.
While we await Congressional action on the fate of the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, this proactive measure would allow undocumented immigrants to continue to contribute to our communities by traveling safely to work, to school, and to take care of their families. Ten states have already adopted this sensible approach. It is time for North Carolina to follow suit.

Raul Pinto is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.