GOP lawmaker proposing that undocumented immigrants be eligible for FL driver’s licenses

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Natalie is a 19-year-old Florida State University student who has a driver’s license. But her father, an undocumented immigrant, has never been able to get one.

“You just always have to keep in mind that if my dad gets pulled over, he’s probably going to get arrested, and we just have to be ready for whatever can happen next,” she worries.

That mindset is more prevalent now than ever in America among the undocumented and those that care about them. That’s because of the Trump administration’s years-long crackdown on undocumented immigrants. The most dramatic increase in arrests is in Florida, according to a report in the Tampa Bay Times.

The stress endured by Natalie’s family and hundreds of thousands of others in Florida could be alleviated if the state allowed undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license, advocates say. It’s also a matter of public safety.

Legislation in 2020?

Republican state Sen. David Simmons, who chairs the Florida Legislature’s Judicial Committee, says he’s introducing a bill in the 2020 Legislature to allow undocumented immigrants to be eligible for driver’s licenses.

“These individuals deserve the opportunity to be able to drive on our streets, on our roads, after they prove they have insurance,” Simmons told Florida Politics earlier this month. “So that they’re not right now living in an underground society, a second-class society, where they are not going to assimilate, be able to drive, or work. We should be able to give them work permits, a work visa or something to that affect.”

Allowing the undocumented to drive legally is controversial, but more states are moving in that direction. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed such legislation, and Oregon Governor Kate Brown is expected to do so shortly. Once she does that, 14 states will have such laws on the books, as well as the District of Columbia.

“It’s public safety legislation, and the state should have already done it,” says Democratic Miami state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez. “You’re going to reduce the number of uninsured motorists and make sure that people pass a driving test.”

Connecticut passed its version of the law in 2015, and since then the Nutmeg State has seen the number of hit-and-run incidents fall. According to judicial data obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, in the 10 Connecticut cities that had the highest concentration of “drive-only” licenses issued to undocumented immigrants, there were 1,200 fewer hit-and-run crashes documented since 2016, a 15 percent decrease over three years.

And a group of Stanford University researchers with the Immigration Policy Lab released a report in 2017 that showed a decrease in hit-and-runs.

“We don’t find a negative effect at all. It suggests these policies can have positive effects on traffic safety. If drivers at an accident remain on the scene, they can be held responsible and pay for the damage,” asserted Hans Lueders, a Stanford PhD student who co-authored the report. “This amounts to more than $17 million attributed to the at-fault driver.”

State Sen. Simmons did not return a request for comment last week about his plan to introduce a bill in the Florida Legislature. His announcement surprised some immigration advocates who remember that Simmons backed the so-called “sanctuary cities” law (SB 168) last spring which mandates that local governments, public agencies and law enforcement agencies share information with federal immigration authorities about undocumented immigrants in custody.

A tool for deportation?

Advocates for immigrants back the idea of making undocumented people eligible for driver’s licenses, but worry that the information might be used to round people up and deport them back to their home countries – a dangerous proposition for those who came here fleeing violence and persecution.

“We’re a little cautious, because Simmons was one of the proponents of SB 168 last session, but at the same time we need bipartisan consensus on this issue,” says Thomas Kennedy with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which has been advocating for the measure for years. “It’s a common-sense proposal from our point of view to have every Florida driver have a license, and so we’re happy that Sen. Simmons agrees with us and we just want to work with him to get this issue done.”

Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando calls Simmons a “genuine, stand-up person” and says he’s appreciative that he’ll file the bill. But Smith has concerns about how such a system would be implemented, saying it’s crucial that the documentation required doesn’t reveal the legal status as a citizen.

“For example, if they ask for someone’s birth certificate as a way to prove identification and that birth certificate reveals that they were born in another country but of course is not necessarily proof that they are undocumented or not, is that information going to be kept confidential, or is it going to be available for public record?”

That’s not idle speculation.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of farmworkers in Vermont, migrant workers on dairy farms were targeted for deportation after they obtained driver’s licenses, Vermont Public Radio reported. The suit claims that the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles forwarded names, photos, car registrations and other information on migrant workers to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

An official with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology told NPR this month that ICE agents were using facial recognition software to sift through driver’s license photos in Vermont, Washington and Utah to find undocumented immigrants.

“I would be laser focused on understanding what some of the unintended consequences would be,” says state Rep. Smith.

“Supporting this bill represents a prime opportunity to mitigate harmful immigration policies and practices,” adds North Miami Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, “provided there are adequate safeguards on who can access the data and what data is collected regarding immigration status.”

Joseph sponsored a bill last spring that would have allowed non-U.S. citizens to use special identification — such as verified information issued by a foreign government — to take the test to qualify for a driver’s license.

Other states have few problems

It’s important to note that while America has been grappling with illegal immigration for decades, the issue of denying undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses wasn’t that sensitive until after the 9/11 terror attacks, which compelled states to beef up their rules on driver’s licenses (the 19 hijackers collectively obtained driver’s licenses from Arizona, California and Florida). Congress then enacted the REAL ID law in 2005 that created statewide standards for state-issued licenses, including evidence of lawful status.

Utah was one state that had never restricted undocumented immigrants from getting a license. But after concerns from Republicans that undocumented immigrants might be able to register and vote with a license, the Utah Legislature in 2005 created a “driving privilege card” instead.

Washington state has been allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses the longest — since 1993.

Magaly Smith is communications manager with OneAmerica, an immigrant and refugee advocacy organization based in Seattle. She says Washington state’s law has been effective and hasn’t received much public criticism.

“They (immigrants) can drive without fear of being arrested for the crime of driving without a license, which brings enormous piece of mind,” she writes in an email. “They can obtain driver’s licenses in order to drive to work, to church, to health care services. They can apply for jobs and certain benefits in the public sector (like gaining entrance to state buildings for appointments) and private sector (like buying a beer) to confirm their identity, their age or their address.”

A tough political task

But the big political question overhanging all of this is: Could the same GOP-controlled Legislature that passed the anti-sanctuary bill turn the other cheek and pass this bill? Two Republicans told the Phoenix they don’t think so.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” says Lake County Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini. “Anyone who is here illegally shouldn’t be rewarded with the privilege of driving.”

“If there are undocumented immigrants, they should be documented. Then they can apply for a license just like the rest of us,” said Republican state Sen. Tom Wright, who represents parts of Brevard and Volusia counties.

Thomas Kennedy with the Florida Immigrant Coalition says it took nearly a decade before the Legislature passed a law in 2014 that granted undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates to Florida colleges and universities (a measure that some Republicans have tried to repeal in recent years without success). He says the political environment to pass such a bill in Tallahassee will be challenging, but not impossible.

“Nelson Mandela says that things always seem impossible until it’s done,” Kennedy says. “The important thing is that we keep this issue visible. We keep moving forward. We keep pushing. We keep building consensus, which is what we’re doing.”

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