A BILL to make illegal immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts sits in the Legislature’s transportation committee, the second iteration of the proposal on Beacon Hill. As the bill awaits a hearing, a new national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts seeks to inform the discussion, exploring the experience of jurisdictions that have been issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers ought to pay attention to the findings as they consider the legislation, known as the Safe Driving Bill. The report shows that implementing the policy is neither as insidious nor as costly as opponents think.
Support for licensing undocumented immigrants has grown dramatically: In 2011, only three states granted such permits. Ten states, plus the District of Columbia, now issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Delaware and Hawaii passed their own laws this year but haven’t started issuing the cards. According to the report, nearly 37 percent of the nation’s 11.3 million illegal immigrants live where they can obtain a driver’s license, including, in New England, Vermont and Connecticut.
More policy makers have come to the realization that granting driver’s permits to the undocumented is in the best interest of public safety and perfectly compatible with federal law. The Massachusetts proposal would grant a distinct type of permit to undocumented drivers, one that cannot be used for federal identification purposes. The bill also states in no uncertain terms that the driver’s permit does not make the holder eligible for any public benefits.
By definition, illegal immigrants do not hold other identification issued by the US government that could be used to obtain a driver’s license. But the Pew report describes lessons learned by other states and offers best practices, for instance by turning to consulates from immigrants’ home countries.
In states that issue permits to illegal immigrants, the policy has largely been self-funded; i.e., fees collected from applicants pay for the costs of issuing the permit, such as startup and staffing costs and any technological upgrades. The report found that the fees vary widely among jurisdictions — anywhere from $18 (Nevada, for a four-year license) to $72 (Connecticut, for a six-year license). Advocates for the Safe Driving Bill in Massachusetts are open to having an extra fee associated with the permit for drivers who are here illegally. (Last year, the Registry of Motor Vehicles estimated the revenue from granting licenses to illegal immigrants at $15 million in fees and other charges, plus $7.5 million in renewal fees every five years.)
Licenses are a privilege that all drivers, citizens and noncitizens alike, must earn. Making licensing available to every motorist who can prove driving competence reduces the number of uninsured drivers, creating more equitable insurance costs.
In 1903, Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to recognize the value of driver’s license laws and adopt them. It’s time for the Commonwealth to follow that tradition and pass the Safe Driving Bill. It’s in the public interest to acknowledge realities and put the safety of all motorists ahead of the politics of immigration.