Driver licenses for undocumented youths?

Illinois and Indiana are among four Midwest states planning to provide licenses to some illegal immigrants.

August 27, 2012

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Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio are planning to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who get work papers under a new federal policy.

The Obama administration policy, called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” will allow as many as 1.7 million illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to get Social Security and employment-authorization cards, along with a deportation reprieve. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications Aug. 15.

“As long as the Social Security Administration issues an individual with a Social Security number, and they have the other documents that are required under Illinois law, then they can apply for a driver’s license,” said Henry Haupt, spokesman for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who oversees that state’s driver licensing.

WBEZ surveyed eight Midwestern states about their response to the policy change. Along with the four states planning to provide licenses, Wisconsin and Iowa officials said they had not decided yet, while Minnesota and Missouri officials did not respond to numerous WBEZ inquiries.

The states planning to issue the driver’s licenses differ from Arizona, Nebraska and Texas, where governors have vowed to block illegal immigrants from getting licenses.

The immigrants must meet several requirements to get the Social Security and work-authorization cards, including having been younger than 31 on June 15; having arrived in the U.S. before turning 16; having lived in the country continuously since June 2007; being a student or graduate, or having served in the military; and having no serious criminal record nor posing any public safety threat. The work authorization will last up to two years and, if the federal policy stays in place, be renewable. The policy does not provide a path to citizenship.

Assuming some of the immigrants have been driving illegally, states that enable them to get a license could make roads safer. “They have to pass the road exam, they have to pass the written exam, and they pass the vision test,” Haupt said about Illinois. “We require so many different things of our young drivers and — by doing so — they, of course, become better drivers.”

Illinois also requires proof of liability insurance on the car the driver uses for the road test. So it’s possible that allowing undocumented immigrants to drive legally could reduce the number of uninsured vehicles.

The immigrants themselves have more at stake. Karen Siciliano Lucas, an advocacy attorney of the Washington-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., points out that driver’s licenses are vital for working and attending school in most regions of the country. “Not only that, it is a state-issued identification that shows who you are,” she said.

The issue is complicated because most states require driver’s license applicants to prove “lawful status” or “legal presence” in the United States. Officials in some states say the work authorization under the Obama policy will be sufficient proof. But a USCIS statement says the policy “does not confer lawful status upon an individual.” It’s unclear whether courts will enable states to define lawful status differently than the federal government does.

States expecting Obama administration guidance about the driver’s licenses could be waiting awhile. In response to WBEZ questions, the Department of Homeland Security sent a statement saying the department does not comment on state-specific matters.

Until federal courts weigh in, states are likely to face lawsuits no matter their course. “We will see battles on this,” Lucas predicted.

Making matters more complicated is the federal Real ID Act, a 2005 law aimed at fighting identity theft and keeping terrorists out of federal buildings and airplanes. Among other things, the act requires states to verify that driver’s license applicants have lawful status in the United States.

The law is set to take effect in January, but it’s not clear how the Obama administration will enforce it. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has fought for the measure’s repeal, calling it unworkable.

That irks advocates for tougher immigration enforcement: “If you want to protect against identify theft, you’ve got to eliminate the fraud,” said Janice Kephart, who focuses on national security policies for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “That means you have to eliminate the illegal-alien community out of that scheme. It doesn’t mean that states cannot give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. It just means that they have to do it outside the Real ID Act.”

Kephart praised Utah, which has created a “driving privilege card” specifically for undocumented immigrants.

At the moment the only other states that let undocumented immigrants drive legally are New Mexico and Washington, which provide them the same licenses that U.S. citizens can get.