Driver’s licenses play a critical role in American society and enable us to participate more fully and productively in our communities. Most of us rely on cars to get ourselves and our families to work, school, the hospital, the grocery store, and church. In addition to facilitating transportation, driver’s licenses enhance public safety by ensuring that all drivers are trained, tested, and qualify for automobile insurance.
A growing number of states are recognizing the importance of offering driver’s licenses to all residents regardless of immigration status. In 2013, 8 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico passed laws granting driving privileges to the undocumented. Each state provides a type of license, valid for anywhere from 1 year to 8 years, to all residents who can meet the respective eligibility requirements. Only Washington and New Mexico do not distinguish between drivers who are U.S. citizens or lawful visitors and those who are not. None of the driving permits currently available to the undocumented meet the federal REAL ID Act requirements, which means that they are not accepted for federal identification purposes, including boarding a plane or entering a federal building.
While we continue to wait for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented, we will likely see more states pass driver’s license laws to allow their undocumented residents to travel safely and legally to work and school, meet the basic needs of their families, and continue contributing to society. State lawmakers are realizing that by not offering licenses to all state residents, they are essentially forcing many undocumented individuals - especially in areas without viable public transportation – to drive without a license. Driving without a license not only jeopardizes the safety of all drivers and passengers but also carries serious legal consequences for unlicensed drivers. Only a handful of states consider driving without a license to be a civil violation. It can result in a criminal misdemeanor conviction in 37 states including jail time in 41 states. Almost every state also imposes a fine, ranging from $100 to $1,000, and some states can impound unlicensed drivers’ vehicles.
In addition to facing prosecution and other penalties, individuals stopped for driving without a license are at risk in some jurisdictions of being questioned by police about their immigration status. They may then be targeted by ICE for deportation through the Secure Communities fingerprint sharing program or other partnerships between ICE and local law enforcement. The risk that unlicensed driving will result in deportation is particularly acute in states like Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina where “show me your papers” laws require police to check the immigration status of lawfully stopped individuals whom they have reason to believe are in the country illegally, as well as in the 19 states where ICE maintains 287(g) agreements permitting state and local law enforcement officers to question individuals in their custody about their immigration status. Even if undocumented drivers are not ultimately deported as a result of having to drive without a license, they may be placed into immigration detention, where they can no longer care for their children, are unable to work, and may lose their jobs, resulting in dire financial and social consequences for themselves and their families.
California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington are to be commended for passing laws permitting their undocumented residents to obtain legal permission to drive. Such laws permit individuals to continue to pursue their livelihoods and care for their families without the constant fear of being stopped by the police, issued an expensive fine, charged with a misdemeanor, or possibly turned over to ICE and deported. Furthermore, driver’s licenses are often used to verify an individual’s identity for the purpose of cashing a check, renting an apartment, receiving medical care, and accessing other basic services. The vital role licenses play in American society has been aptly described by undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas as follows: “When you’re undocumented, a driver’s license is not only driver’s license, it’s proof that you exist.”
Below is a list of the jurisdictions that have passed laws permitting undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses. Click on a particular state to review the relevant law, the eligibility requirements for obtaining a license, and other details.
This summary was prepared in January 2014 for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Research was provided by Anabel Diaz, Brian Shyr, Ruhee Vagle, Nicole Weinstock, and Kasandra Haynes. For questions, please contact CLINIC’s State & Local Advocacy Attorney Jen Riddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or (301) 565-4807.