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Driver's Licenses for Immigrants Vary by State

Posted by Matthew Green | Sep 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

Immigrants' ability to get a driver's license varies from state to state.  Some states allow for a driver's license regardless of immigration status.  Others do not.  Some states even deny a driver's license to people who have already been granted Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).  However, the number of states providing for a license to drive for everyone is increasing, although many states have yet to take up the issue.

As of January 1, 2015, California will begin allowing undocumented immigrants to get a driver's license. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and sheriff officials are holding question and answer sessions across the state to educate people on the process required to become legally licensed to drive.  However, the use of the cards is limited to driving and purchasing insurance, and will not be valid as forms of identification.

On the other side of the policy, unlawful immigrants are not able to get a driver's license in the state of Arizona.  Even in the case of immigrants who have DACA status, such that they may remain in the country for a period of time, and even be granted work status, Arizona has prevented issuing driver's licenses to these individuals.  Arizona is viewed by many as the most hostile state to DACA recipients, despite the fact that the state has such a high DACA application rate. A district court issued an injunction against the ban, but for now, the ban remains pending the states request for a hearing.

In Oregon, voters will get to decide the fate of the issue in a referendum on the November ballots.  While Oregon's governor signed a bill last year to allow driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, a petition against the bill led to the vote being placed on the upcoming election ballot.  The issue is a hot debate topic in the gubernatorial race in Colorado, where current law allows for access to to a driver's license regardless of legal immigration status.

Those opposing the laws, including a group of Oregon sheriffs, have said that issuing driving licenses will only encourage unlawful immigration. They have also suggested providing for a driver's license would not do anything to increase public safety.

On the other hand, the proponents of issuing driver's licenses argue that the change will allow drivers to be tested and prove their understanding of the rules of the road, making them safer drivers.  They also suggest that having a valid license will make people more likely to purchase car insurance, increasing the number of covered drivers on the roadways.

Many undocumented immigrants will also find security in having a license.  Currently, without a valid license, if an unlawful resident is pulled over while driving, not having the document can often lead law enforcement to discover that they are in the country illegally.  Having a driver's license can remedy this source of insecurity.

The National Immigration Law Center has created a map showing the disparity in driver's license policies by state.  With the exception of Arizona and Nebraska, the trend across the countries appears to be in favor of issuing driver's licenses to everyone.  In the case of those two states, it may be the courts who ultimately rule on whether their bans will be overturned.

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Partner. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...


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