N.J. could be the next state to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

New Jersey debates whether one should need to prove legal residency in the state in order to get a driver’s license.

Hundreds rallied outside the Statehouse to push lawmakers to join 13 other states and Washington, D.C. in extending licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Hundreds rallied outside the Statehouse to push lawmakers to join 13 other states and Washington, D.C. in extending licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Tatiana Rodriguez emigrated from Uruguay when she was a child, but she is not covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which means she cannot legally get a driver’s license in the state of New Jersey.

The Elizabeth resident said, during a hearing in the state legislature on Monday, that the inability to drive has put a strain on her family.

“I have a six-year-old boy who asks me every day why I can’t drive him to school, why we can’t drive to his doctors appointments, why I cannot be behind the wheel to take him to his soccer games,” she said.

Rodriguez was one of dozens of people who testified Monday before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill that would extend driver’s licenses to people who cannot prove they are in the country legally.

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Advocates for immigrant communities have pushed for such legislation for years, arguing that allowing immigrants to drive lets them work and lead productive lives.

But opponents of the legislation said it is unfair to residents and legal immigrants to extend rights to people who may be living in the country illegally.

“I believe that, for a free and orderly society, the rule of law must be preeminent and enforced,” said Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon. “I oppose this legislation because it confers privileges on those who have willfully and knowingly violated our laws.”

The bill passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a vote of 4-2, with all Democrats in favor and both Republicans opposed.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports the idea.

If the legislation becomes law, New Jersey would become the 15th state to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented people, according to the Center for American Progress.

Under the proposal, applicants for standard drivers licenses would have to prove they live in New Jersey, but they would not have to prove their “lawful presence” in the country or disclose information about their immigration status.

The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission would not retain any of the documentation used to apply for the standard license, and it would be a crime for an MVC employee to disclose any information to law enforcement “for the purpose of investigation, arrest, citation, prosecution, or detention related to an applicant’s citizenship or immigration.”

The standard driver’s license is different than REAL ID, the federally-standardized driver’s license that New Jersey and nearly all other states have started offering, which requires a Social Security number and proof of legal residency in the country.

Sue Fulton, chief administrator of the MVC, said that expanding eligibility for driver’s licenses would simply make the roads safer, since more drivers would be trained and insured.

“A driver’s license is not a reward for good citizenship. It’s a tool. It’s a permit to drive on our public roads,” Fulton said. “It’s no more nor less than a way for us to keep our roads and drivers safe.”

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