Could unauthorized immigrants soon get NJ driver’s licenses?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Like most teens, 19-year-old college freshman Desiree Armas cherishes her New Jersey driver’s license. Unlike most, she’s a so-called Dreamer, who is deeply afraid she’ll lose her license if Congress can’t find a way to salvage DACA. That’s why she supports creating a special driver’s license for unauthorized immigrants.

“I use my license as ID. I use it to commute to school. I even use it for employment,” said Armas.

Others in her family do the same, she says. They are unauthorized immigrants from Peru who must drive for work but look fearfully in the rear view mirror.

“They don’t have a license, but they’re willing to run that risk,” she said. “Someone in my family has been stopped before. And he thought that he was just going to be deported, right there and then.”

A coalition of advocates launched “Let’s Drive NJ” Thursday, a campaign to expand access to driver’s licenses, modeled on a bill originally sponsored in 2015 by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano.

“The bill has a listing of documents that would be required. They’re not going to get off without showing documents that would confirm their identity,” said Quijano. “It could be a passport, counselors card.”

New Jersey is home to an estimated 466,000 unauthorized immigrants of driving age. Applicants for a special expanded license would have to pass the same written and road tests as any other driver. Their license would look different, perhaps with notification it’s not suitable for federal use.

“So, it wouldn’t work to get on an airplane. It wouldn’t work to fill out an I-9 at a job. But it is valid for the very critical purpose of driving, something that we all need to do in the Garden State, and also for identification purposes,” said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road NJ.

A dozen other states and the District of Columbia have already issued special expanded licenses. One for example, California, saw hit-and-runs drop by 10 percent, according to NJ Policy Perspective analyst Erika Nava, who says unlicensed immigrant drivers would often flee an accident scene.

“The reason why they were fleeing is because they were fearful of questioning that would lead to deportation. Not because they wanted, they didn’t want to be held accountable for the accident,” said Nava.

But critics want to be sure immigrants who apply for a special driver’s license don’t automatically get registered to vote and do produce valid ID documents.

“We’re talking about countries from all over the world to have a student record card or something. The people at Motor Vehicles cannot be experts in what is a legitimate document and what isn’t,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Governor-elect Murphy says he supports the concept of an expanded driver’s license. Quijano says she will meet with Murphy’s administration to craft a bill that meets people’s needs and concerns.