Unauthorized immigrant access to driver’s licenses has been a hotly debated issue among states this year. Amid this controversy, Pew Charitable Trusts’ Immigration and States Project released two briefs last month analyzing and providing updates on how states are designing and implementing laws which allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.
The briefs were published on the heels of a previous study by Pew, Deciding Who Drives, released in August 2015. Pew identified four main areas of study when looking at each states’ alternative licensing program: scope, eligibility standards, issuance procedures and outreach and education.
The study revealed that as of the summer of 2015, ten states have issued driver’s licenses, or similar documents referred to by different names, to unauthorized immigrants. 37 percent of unauthorized immigrants live in a jurisdiction where they may obtain a license.
These states, with the addition of the District of Columbia, include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. Delaware and Hawaii have enacted legislation making unauthorized immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses, but, at the time the Pew report was written, had not begun issuing licenses.
The first brief, Factors Influencing the Number of Alternative Driver’s Licenses Issued by States, explained that it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions regarding the number of licenses that have been issued, since these states have been issuing license to unauthorized immigrants for less than two years.
The brief revealed that as of September 30, 2015, more than 900,000 unauthorized immigrants in eight jurisdictions (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Vermont and Washington, DC), have receive alternative licenses, with 513,000 of those licenses issued in California in just the last nine months.
Over the next five years, these states estimate to issue more than 2.8million alternative licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Numbers are sure to surge as Delaware and Hawaii begin to issue licenses in the coming weeks, and as additional states follow suit.
Pew identified five core factors that may impact estimates for the number of immigrants seeking licenses: learning permit requirements, appointment availability, eligibility requirements, fraud and public outreach and education. Pew notes that estimating the number of applications is critical to planning for the cost of implementation, anticipated revenue and staffing needs.
The brief also explained that even if a state prepares for all these factors, it may still experience unanticipated events affecting the number of expected applications. In Vermont, for example, the number of driver’s privilege cards issued as of October 18, 2015—more than 53,000—far exceeded the initial estimate of 1,500.
Pew’s second brief, Alternative Driver’s Licenses for Unauthorized Immigrants, stated both Delaware and Hawaii still need to make implementation-related decisions. In particular, the two states need to decide whether appointments will be needed to screen applicants, and how fraudulent applicants will be handled.
Pew noted the experience of other states should inform the discussion on how Delaware and Hawaii will make these important decisions before they begin issuing alternative licenses.
Providing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants is a contentious issue in many states. Under the 2005 REAL ID Act, states are authorized to issue licenses to unauthorized immigrants as long as those licenses are distinctly different from a regular driver’s license that would be held by a legal resident.
The REAL ID Act implemented the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the government set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses. The act prohibits federal agencies from accepting for official purposes licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet these standards. One of the goals of the REAL ID Act was to strengthen the security of federal facilities, nuclear power plants, and federally regulated aircraft from terrorist attacks.
Earlier this year, Homeland Security Today reported some security experts believe putting licenses in the hands of unauthorized immigrants is a practice that is antithetical to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.
“REAL ID was intended to carry out key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which revealed that our nation’s permissive system of issuing driver’s licenses was a glaring vulnerability that was exploited by the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” said FAIR President Dan Stein in a statement.
Stein added, "REAL ID is a textbook example of what happens when the vital interests of the American people run up against the interests of powerful business interests, the illegal alien lobby and bureaucratic foot-dragging. The interests of the American people – even the security of our nation – get sacrificed.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts takes no position on federal, state or local laws or policies related to immigration or driver’s licenses.