Can Undocumented Immigrants Get Driver’s Licenses?

Teenage boy holding license and car keys


The ability to drive a car can be essential to many of the tasks of daily life — taking the kids to school, picking up groceries, going to the doctor and, perhaps most importantly, getting to work.

Most states do not issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. This leaves immigrants with a difficult choice: meeting their daily needs or risking arrest for driving without a license. A driver’s license also serves as an ID to obtain many essential services and benefits.


An Argument for Safety

Many people consider availability of driver’s licenses for undocumented workers to be a public safety issue. Drivers who are trained, tested and insured are better drivers. They are less likely to get into accidents or flee the scene of an accident.


Some States Offer Driver’s Licenses for All

The states of New Mexico and Washington offer undocumented immigrants the same driver’s licenses as U.S. citizens. Utah offers a “driving privilege card,” used only for driving purposes.

Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon have recently passed laws that will allow the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, usually as a “second class” license with some sort of marking that distinguishes them from regular driver’s licenses. These laws will be in effect by 2014. Similar laws are under consideration in 12 more states, plus the District of Columbia.

This category of license cannot be used for federal purposes such as boarding an airplane or voting. To apply for a license, undocumented immigrants provide proof that they pay federal and state income taxes as well as proof of identity from their country of origin.


Most States Allow Licenses under DACA

Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, illegal immigrants brought to the United States before the age of 16, who are younger than 31 and have lived in the country at least five years, are eligible for deferral of deportation and authorization to work. Many recipients, however, must drive in order to be able to work.

The Department of Homeland Security in January 2013 issued a memorandum stating that immigrants with such deferrals were legal enough to qualify for driver’s licenses.

The states, however, decide who gets a driver’s license. So far, 45 states have created a path for issuing driver’s licenses to DACA recipients, with differing restrictions and appearances. Arizona and Nebraska specifically deny such licenses under DACA; they are being challenged in court.


Consequences for Minor Traffic Offenses

Recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has indicated that enforcement action based solely on a charge for a minor traffic offense is generally not an efficient use of government resources. Many state and local governments have changed their laws and no longer routinely hand over undocumented immigrants charged with such low-level offenses to federal authorities for deportation.

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