States Continue to Expand Immigrants’ Access to Driver’s Licenses | CLINIC

States Continue to Expand Immigrants’ Access to Driver’s Licenses

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By Jen Riddle

Despite the lack of federal comprehensive immigration reform so far, 2013 has been a year of positive, pro-immigrant laws and policies on a state level.  One of the year’s top issues has been access to driver’s licenses.  In fact, more states enacted laws pertaining to driver’s licenses and state identification in 2013 than on any other immigration-related topic.  A majority of these laws served to expand driving privileges to all state residents, including those without immigration authorization. 


Currently, 11 states have passed laws permitting all residents to drive regardless of immigration status:

-          Washington (currently issues state driver’s licenses to all residents)

-          New Mexico (currently issues state driver’s licenses to all residents)

-          Utah (currently issues the undocumented driving privilege cards that may not be used to prove identity)

-          Illinois (driver’s license law will go into effect Nov 28, 2013)

-          Maryland (driver’s license law will go into effect Jan 1, 2014)

-          Nevada (driver’s license law will go into effect Jan 1, 2014)

-          Vermont (driver’s license law will go into effect Jan 1, 2014)

-          Oregon (implementation of driver’s license law delayed until after November 2014 referendum)

-          Colorado (driver’s license law will go into effect Aug 1, 2014)

-          Connecticut (driver’s license law will go into effect Jan 1, 2015)

-          California (driver’s license law will go into effect Jan 1, 2015)


The District of Columbia City Council is expected to vote on a bill extending driver’s licenses to the undocumented on November 5, 2013.


By ensuring that individuals without immigration status can pass driving exams, obtain insurance, and legally drive to work and elsewhere, such measures make our roads safer for everyone, stimulate the economy, and promote fuller integration of immigrants into our communities.  Immigrant families can carry on with their lives without the fear of being stopped by the police, fined or charged with driving without a license, and possibly referred to ICE for removal proceedings. 


It is important to note that the driver’s licenses issued by all of the above states (except Washington and New Mexico) either are or will be distinguishable from the standard driver’s license issued to those with social security numbers.  The licenses will be marked in some way.  Most will contain language on the front or back such as “Not valid for federal purposes” in order to ensure states’ compliance with the federal REAL ID Act.  That law sets forth minimum security enhancements for driver’s licenses.  Only licenses that meet the REAL ID requirements can be used as identification for the purpose of accessing Federal buildings or airplanes. 


Advocates are concerned that marked licenses will identify their holders as undocumented and may expose undocumented drivers to discrimination by local police, potential employers, and others.  CLINIC will be closely monitoring the issuance of driver’s licenses – starting in Illinois in November and continuing into 2014 – for potential unintended consequences including discrimination or selective prosecution. 


Despite these concerns, it is encouraging to see states acknowledging the contributions made by their undocumented residents and taking steps to incorporate them more fully into society. States are also making a statement to our members of Congress. For example, according to Governor Brown of California (the most recent state to pass a driver’s license law), “When a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of the country will have to stand up and take notice.  No longer are undocumented people in the shadows.  They are alive and well and respected in the state of California.”  We expect to see more states introducing (and hopefully passing) driver’s license laws next year including Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island. 


Go to for a map of current state laws and policies on driver’s licenses for immigrants prepared by the National Immigration Law Center.  For affiliates in states that do not yet have a law providing driving permission to undocumented immigrants, please reach out to CLINIC to support your advocacy in promoting the passage of such initiatives.