The Time for Driver’s Licenses for the Undocumented is Now


There is no reason that driving should be reserved for citizens and legal residents, especially in a state like New Jersey where not having a car is tantamount to being stranded.

But that’s the reality in most states — including New Jersey, where advocates are pushing hard to extend driving privileges to undocumented residents. Cosecha New Jersey, one of the groups. putting pressure on state legislators, organized a four-mile march from Perth Amboy to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s Woodbridge office Wednesday that attracted about 500 mostly local protesters. The hope was to seek a commitment to post. the legislation for a vote before summer recess. The speaker wouldn’t commit, though the license expansion has support from Senate leadership and the governor.

Newspapers covering the Legislature have reported that the bill is being held up until after the November election, when the entire Assembly is on the ballot. These political considerations might seem prudent to some, but they leave many people who live and work in the state vulnerable.

Carlos E. Rodriguez, an organizer with Cosecha, said the Legislature needs to stop dragging its feet.

“Not having a license forces immigrant families to make a hard choice,” he told me in a Facebook message. “To drive and take on the risks associated with getting unfair tickets and being exposed to deportation or to not drive and live with the limitations associated with it.”

This is especially problematic, he said, with Donald Trump in the White House, because “interactions with law enforcement are a leading factor for deportation.”

The license issue was first raised more than a decade ago, but failed to gain traction under both Republican and Democratic governor’s. This was at a time when the national political mood was creating momentum against licenses — it was an issue during the Democratic primaries in 2008 and the candidates, including then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, ran against them. Polling still shows opposition, though that may be changing. A January poll from Let’s Drive NJ showed majority support, though it was conducted for an advocacy group and probably should be taken with a grain of salt. License bills have been introduced in several states, with the. Minnesota bill being the closest to passing, which may indicate a thawing on the issue.

Here in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat favors licenses, legislation that would create a separate license sits in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee and the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee awaiting consideration. The bill would create a separate license for those who cannot prove they are in the country legally that would allow them to drive but could not be used for other purposes, such as airport identification or proof of identity for public benefits.

Critics of the licenses question why those hear without documentation — who are, in their words, lawbreakers — should be given the privilege of being allowed to drive. Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski, for instance, called a Minnesota bill that passed the state House a “super magnet” for illegal immigration and “one step closer to making Minnesota a sanctuary state,” while Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, also a Republican, said. “We want immigrants coming here legally and [to] create a ladder to the middle class … Incentivizing people to come here illegally defeats that purpose.” (This is from a story posted to the website of the hardline anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform.)

In New Jersey, Republicans are the chief opponents, though Democrats in the Assembly have not shown the kind of commitment that activists want, which is why Cosecha marched to the speaker’s office Wednesday. Rodriguez, who was arrested during a sit-in at Assemblywoman Annette Quijano’s office. Quijano is a sponsor of the legislation.

At the time of his arrest (he was released later that day), Rodriguez told me he felt he had no choice but to put his body on the line, because the the men, women, and children for whom he advocates could not without facing existential penalties. If they are arrested, he told me during the fall, the penalty would be far greater than a fine. They could find themselves in an immigrant detention center awaiting deportation.

Yet, they drive — because not driving would cut them off from their work and from other important services..

“For some immigrant families it is not even a choice, some of them have to drive otherwise they might loose their jobs and the ability to provide for their families,” he told me. “Also everyone has emergencies and if we have to take our loved ones to the ER then we have to drive.”

What this debate comes down to is whether we are going to acknowledge what already is true — that these immigrant families, whether documented or not, are part of our communities. They have the same goals as everyone else, and the same needs. They contribute. Denying them the legal right to drive is nothing more than a vindictive move that says more about us than it does about them.

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Hank Kalet
Hank Kalet’s poetry and journalism have appeared in regional and national publications, including The Progressive, In These Times, the Journal of New Jersey Poets, Big Hammer, Big Scream, The Free Press and elsewhere. He has authored three chapbooks — Suburban Pastoral (Voices of Reason, 2008), Certainties and Uncertainties (Finishing Line Press, 2010), and Stealing Copper (Finishing Line Press, 2015) — and his work was included in Palisades, Parkways & Pinelands: An Anthology of Contemporary New Jersey Poets (Blast, 2016).He is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight, where he covers poverty, immigration and urban issues, and writes a regular column for The Progressive Populist and the blog Channel Surfing. A long-time editor and editorial writer for the Princeton Packet newspaper chain, he now teaches journalism and writing at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. He lives in Central Jersey with his wife Annie and their two dogs.