Why States Should Offer Unmarked Driver’s Licenses to ALL Residents

Last Updated

July 3, 2014

Currently, seven states and the District of Columbia grant driver’s licenses to residents who cannot prove lawful presence in the United States. Four additional states have passed legislation to that effect and will begin granting licenses to undocumented residents within the next year. However, only two of these states offer undocumented residents the standard driver’s license available to individuals lawfully present in the country. The other states offer licenses—sometimes called “driver’s privilege cards”—that contain language limiting the use of the license and are somehow marked or distinguishable by title, color, or design.

For most immigrants, driving is necessary in their everyday lives. They need to drive to get to work, to school, and to the supermarket. In addition, many immigrants are self-employed and rely on their cars to be able run their businesses and do their jobs. Consequently, the ability to drive is often essential to providing basic life necessities like food, shelter, and medical care. Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals greatly improves their quality of life and well-being by allowing them to legally drive and live their lives as normally as possible. 

Despite the many benefits, there are a number of drawbacks to having a marked driver’s license. For undocumented individuals, having state-issued identification that is noticeably different from that of other residents draws attention to them and their lack of legal status. Because of the markings, everyone from police officers to the clerk at the corner store can know someone’s immigration status just by looking at their state-issued identification. The actors who learn this information that they would not otherwise know may not have either the right or the need to know it. Additionally, there is a risk that police officers, upon seeing a marked license, will inquire about the individual’s immigration status or even contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Several people interviewed by CLINIC describe feeling “discriminated against” or treated differently when using marked driver’s licenses. Because of these issues, many undocumented residents report only showing their marked driver’s license when absolutely necessary. They offer other forms of identification whenever possible.

Marked driver’s licenses also cause problems for individuals because they are often not accepted as identification or proof of age. Individuals have been turned away from stores when attempting to pay with a credit card or check, pick up prescriptions, or prove their age when purchasing alcohol or other restricted items. Others have been unable to sign the legal documents required to obtain loans or lease apartments. At least one student interviewed by CLINIC was turned away from the ACT college entrance exam because her marked license was not considered valid identification by ACT administrators.

Additionally, the application process and requirements for a marked driver’s license are often considerably more onerous and burdensome than those for the standard license. In many states, the application requires a large amount of paperwork and documents, much more than is required for a standard license. Marked driver’s licenses often must also be renewed more frequently than standard licenses, in some states as often as every year or two. This requires undocumented residents to go through the application process and pay the application fee far more often than individuals with standard licenses. All of these additional requirements impose a real burden on holders of marked driver’s licenses.

Overall, granting driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals is a good policy that helps immigrants participate more fully in society. It is also consistent with Catholic social teaching. Individuals must work to support their families and contribute to society. The Catholic faith calls for respecting every human being, regardless of immigration status, and acknowledging the dignity of their efforts to work in order to provide for themselves and their families. But the positive benefits of driver’s licenses are significantly undermined when such licenses are marked to denote that the holder is without lawful status or are not accepted as a form of official identification. For this reason, unmarked licenses with full privileges are preferable to marked licenses or “privilege cards.” If licenses must be distinguished in some way, states should strive to make the distinguishing features as minimal as possible in order to avoid unduly stigmatizing undocumented residents.