Republican lawmakers are pushing bills that would deport more undocumented immigrants detained by Florida law-enforcement agencies. On Wednesday, two Democratic lawmakers announced an entirely different legislative proposal: allow undocumented immigrants to get a Florida driver’s license.
Although the idea is controversial, twelve other states allow undocumented people to get driver’s licenses, including in the very red state of Utah.
Being arrested for driving without a license in Florida is a second-degree misdemeanor that could result in a fine and jail time. With approximately a million undocumented immigrants living in Florida who don’t have access to a driver’s license, advocates say the time is now to pass a law.
The bill says that an undocumented immigrant must present one of a variety of documents to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license, such as: a certified copy of a birth certificate; a naturalization certificate from the Department of Homeland Security; a green card or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad from the U.S. Department of State.
Scott McCoy, currently with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, served in the Utah Legislature in 2005 when that Republican-controlled body passed a bill that permitted special “driving privilege cards” for undocumented immigrants, allowing them to get auto insurance and drive legally.
“The number of insured drivers increased because of that,” McCoy said at a press conference. “We had fewer people being stopped and incarcerated for something as minor as driving without a license, and it just makes sense.”
Nery, a woman who did not want to give her last name, lives in Miami and is studying biology at Florida International University. Although undocumented, she is shielded from deportation because she’s part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Her parents were undocumented. She said that added considerable fear when they would give her rides to school.
“Many immigrant families contribute every day to our economy, and I want our community to be protected. I don’t want the fear for our community anymore,” she said.
The Republican-led Legislature has made it a priority to crack down on immigrants this year. The House Civil Justice Subcommittee passed a bill this week that would ban any local government from enacting an ordinance to limit coordination with federal immigration authorities. It also mandates that local governments honor federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants.
“The bill does not target people based on their appearance, and nobody will be asked to provide their papers,” said the bill sponsor, state Rep. Cord Byrd, Republican from Neptune Beach. “The only people that the law applies to are people who are in custody for committing a criminal violation against the laws in the state of Florida, or a local or state law enforcement agency that has already found probable cause for that person to be detained.”
But opponents say that undocumented people who are pulled over for a minor traffic infraction could ultimately end up being deported.
Longtime Tampa Bay area farmworker advocate Margarita Romo says she’s seen that happen.
“I have seen people being detained. I’ve seen an entire car (get pulled over). The person who was driving didn’t have a license. The people in the car were undocumented…and they were all deported.”
Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters, who is sponsoring Byrd’s bill in the Senate, admitted last week that at a local law officer’s discretion, they could arrest an undocumented immigrant for not having a driver’s license, and suggested that the undocumented should use public transit instead.
“Florida is not a public transit state – I wish we were,” says state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, who is co-sponsoring the driver’s license bill in the House. “The reality is, without a car, without the ability to drive a car, you can’t get to work. You cannot bring your kids to school, you can’t go to the day care for your children, you can’t pick up groceries. You can’t do anything.”
The odds of the bill getting a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature are doubtful, to say the least. Eskamani is calling on the public to contact state Rep. Brad Drake, a Panhandle Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee. That’s the committee where the House bill goes next.