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CIANA Explains: Can Undocumented Immigrants Get Driver’s Licenses?

Driver's licenses from across the United States and abroad, including New York and California.

Carlos Cardona Fuentes was pulled over on his daughter’s third birthday in Attica, NY for speeding. After Fuentes failed to provide the police officer with a driver’s license, it was discovered that he did not have one.

As an undocumented immigrant, Fuentes is not eligible to receive a driver’s license in New York State. After he was stopped for speeding, he was then detained by Border Patrol and placed in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility. Although he was able to reunite with his wife and daughter after a friend and ally posted a $10,000 bond and thus able to see his daughter again, because New York does not grant driver’s license to undocumented immigrants, Fuentes risks deportation and the possibility that he may be permanently torn away from his wife and daughter.

Currently, twelve states, including in Connecticut and California, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make it possible for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. But for states like New York, undocumented immigrants who rely on driving to get around- whether to get to work or take their children to school- are at a special risk. Outside of New York City and many areas of the five boroughs, this is a particular disadvantage to low income immigrants of color that affects their livelihoods and their local communities. Put simply, waiting for laws to change for the right to drive is not an option.

Will Driver’s Licenses Always Be Out of Reach?

In 2007, unauthorized immigrants were given the right to drive under Governor Eliot Spitzer via an executive order, but this was quickly reversed due to widespread public opposition.

However a few weeks ago, our neighbors at Make the Road NY tweeted that Alphonso David, Counselor to Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced that the New York State Legislature will pass a bill during the 2019 legislative session that would ensure equal access to driver’s licenses for all state residents, regardless of immigration status. This bill, known as the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, is being sponsored by two Democrats from the Bronx.

If the bill passes, it will expand access to driver’s licenses for 752,000 undocumented immigrant New Yorkers over the age of 16 who are currently barred from obtaining licenses. Those living upstate like Fuentes, where driving is essential for everyday tasks, will especially benefit, as undocumented immigrants who live in this part of the state perform farmwork and other rural tasks that are essential to our food sources in New York and throughout the country.

Expanding the right to drive to undocumented immigrants will benefit everyone as roads will be safer since more people will have to know the rules of driver safety according to U.S. law. This will in turn clear up the backlog of court cases for driving without a license, and could also allow undocumented immigrants to shop a wider array of local businesses, which will stimulate economic growth both in the city and upstate. Driver’s licenses for all could also have some unexpected benefits, like increasing the number of organ donors. But most importantly, it will recognize the right of unauthorized immigrants to live their lives as easily and conveniently as citizens and legal residents.

Fortunately, there is a strong backing of the bill across the state, not just in New York City. The Yonkers City Council passed a resolution in support of the bill and for the immigrant community, and the Mayor of Rochester, Lovely Warren, has expressed support for it as well. Furthermore, support from Green Light NY: Driving Together, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups all across the state- along the Hudson River from Westchester to Albany, on Long Island and throughout Western New York, ensures that through lobbying that the right to drive and safe driving is on its way for everyone, regardless of immigration status.

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