Can US Immigrants Get a Driver’s License?
Immigrants who want to get a driver’s license in the United States face difficulties based on their status and their language ability.
Agencies across the US are stepping up requirements to drive, including English-only tests and proof of residency — which means thousands of both documented and undocumented immigrants may be denied a driver’s license.
Undocumented Immigrants & the Right to Drive
A decade ago, most states allowed undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s test and obtain a license. However, after the 9/11 attacks, many states changed their laws to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, as many feared that licenses could be used by terrorists to take on false identities.
While fears of terrorists obtaining driver’s licenses with false information have died down, many people are still against issuing government IDs to immigrants here illegally.
New Mexico, Utah and Washington are the only states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In 2005, Utah established a “driving privilege” card in lieu of a driver’s license for anyone who could not produce a Social Security number. The driving privilege card resembles a driver’s license for the most part, but it has a red outline and the words “not valid identification for Utah government entity.”
Despite this tiered system, politicians in Utah — and New Mexico and Washington as well — are trying to take away undocumented immigrants’ right to drive.
The Real ID Act
A federal law called the Real ID Act could be the cause of some of the tight regulations around driver’s licenses.
Though the law was passed in 2005, it takes full effect in 2013 and pressures states to make driver’s licenses more secure. States’ licenses that do not meet the Real ID Act’s standards can result in license-holders having to present other forms of ID to board airplanes or enter federal government buildings.
Some states are hesitant to introduce driving privilege cards like the ones in Utah because of tough Real ID standards, even though driving privilege cards cannot be used as identification.
Driver’s License Tests Cause Problems for Immigrants
Undocumented immigrants aren’t the only ones who face issues getting driver’s licenses. A lack of driving tests in English can cause problems for immigrants who are in the United States legally, too.
Thirty million people living in the US speak a language other than English in their homes, and the Department of Transportation provides information in several different languages for drivers across the United States. However, departments of motor vehicles are state-level agencies, and many states have opted to have written driver’s license tests available in English only.
Safety Is an Issue
Advocates of licenses for undocumented immigrants argue that making driver’s licenses available for everyone would put thousands of dollars back into the state, as all licensed drivers are required to pay fees for licenses and vehicle registration.
More importantly, however, advocates ask people concerned with the issue to consider public safety. Licensed drivers are required to buy insurance and are statistically less likely to be involved in an accident.
When laws and language barriers get in the way of an immigrant’s ability to get a driver’s license, immigrants who need vehicles may choose to drive with an expired license or no license at all — and that puts more people at risk.