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In California, Colorado and Connecticut, more than 500,000 licenses have been issued to applicants with no proof of U.S. residency. “This issue is dynamic and gaining traction,” says one expert.
Between the beginning of the year and Aug. 7, California issued 452,000 driver’s licenses to applicants who did not have to prove that they were in the United States legally, according to figures the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles provided earlier this week.
Among the people who received those licenses is Maria Cruz. Originally from Jalisco, a state on the west coast of Mexico, she has lived in California for 19 years. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Cruz said during a phone interview on Tuesday that she applied for her license on Jan. 6 in San Jose, just a few days after Assembly Bill 60 went into effect.
Approved in 2013, that statute enables unauthorized immigrants to obtain a California driver’s license. While A.B. 60 license applicants don’t have to submit proof of their legal presence in the U.S., they do need to prove their identity, and show that they are state residents. They must also meet other standard licensing requirements.
Cruz said that she uses her car to bring her children to school and to run day-to-day errands. Asked why she applied for the license, she explained that she wanted to drive legally, without worrying about getting into trouble with the police, or having her car impounded.
‘States Really Need to Plan Ahead’
As of summer 2015, California is one of 10 states, along with the District of Columbia, that issues driver’s licenses, or similar documents, to unauthorized immigrants, according to a report The Pew Charitable Trusts released on Tuesday.
Demand for the licenses among people who are not in the U.S. legally has been strong, with the volume of applicants sometimes greatly exceeding initial expectations. In some places this has caused long waits for road tests and overwhelmed department of motor vehicles websites.
The Pew report points out that nearly 37 percent of the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. now live in places where they can get a driver’s license.
Of this population, 22 percent, or an estimated 2.4 million people, reside in California.
Those in support of issuing licenses to unauthorized immigrants highlight a variety of benefits, ranging from improved roadway safety to economic gains from additional vehicle sales.
But not everyone is on board. Some illegal immigration opponents say that driver’s license privileges should not be extended to people who are in the U.S. unlawfully.
Voters in Oregon rejected a ballot measure last year that would have preserved a law initiating a licensing program for undocumented immigrants in their state.
And across the nation, debates about whether, and how, to roll out the licensing programs shows no signs of abating. Some see it as an example of how states are stepping in to fill a void caused by Congress’ lack of progress on federal immigration reforms.
In the past two years alone, 11 legislatures have passed driver’s license laws related to unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew, with Delaware and Hawaii doing so in 2015.
“This issue is dynamic and gaining traction,” Pew’s Adam Hunter said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
The Pew report emphasizes that licensing programs for unauthorized immigrants vary from state-to-state, and it outlines a number of considerations that officials might keep in mind if they decide to proceed with these types of initiatives.
“We know that in a constrained fiscal environment, these choices that states make are critical,” Pew’s Michele Waslin said during the Tuesday call.
Because start-up costs for technology, staff and outreach are often incurred before any new license fees are collected, she added that “states really need to plan ahead.”
‘We Didn’t Know What to Expect’
Between 2014 and 2017, funding for the A.B. 60 licensing program is $141 million, with much of this money going toward staff costs. As with all other driver's licenses in California, there is a $33 application fee. A DMV spokeswoman, Jessica Gonzalez, said this money is deposited into a motor vehicle budget account, but it is not intended to cover the costs of the new program.
To help handle the extra volume of people applying for licenses after A.B. 60 went into effect, California’s DMV opened four driver’s license processing centers around the state, which Gonzalez described as “big-box stores” for first-time license applicants. She also said the department hired nearly 1,000 new employees.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Gonzalez explained. “We didn’t know if on January second it was going to be Black Friday.” she added: “Those first three months our field offices were packed.”
During those months, wait times at the department’s offices did go up, she said.
In California, all new driver’s license applicants need to make appointments with the DMV. Gonzalez said those “appointments were definitely booked all through January, February and even into March.” The department made some tweaks to its appointment system, to help alleviate some of that scheduling pressure and, over the summer, demand began to taper off.
In the first week of August, 24,000 A.B. 60 applicants visited DMV offices. That’s compared to the week of Jan. 10 when that same number was 92,000.
Assemblymember Luis Alejo sponsored A.B, 60, which the Legislature approved nearly two years ago. Alejo, a Democrat, represents a district that includes the Salinas Valley, which is located on California’s central coast and is an important agricultural hub.
“Every day that I’m back in my district, I run into an immigrant worker at the post office, at a shopping center, and they recognize me, and they want to pull out their driver’s license and thank me,” he said during a phone interview on Tuesday.
Alejo also touted the economic benefits of the new law. “They’re buying cars, they’re obtaining lines of credit, they’re renting vehicles,” Alejo said of the new license holders. He added: “When we have people who are probably already driving, but now they are tested, licensed and insured, that makes all of California’s roads and highways safer.”
But there are some in the Golden State that take a dimmer view of A.B. 60.
Joe Guzzardi is national media director for Californians for Population Stabilization, a group that advocates for “slowing mass immigration” into the state. “If you were considering coming to America illegally,” he said by telephone on Tuesday, “certainly the ability to get a driver’s license is going to make your entrance to California much more attractive.”
Alejo dismissed that criticism. “We haven’t seen a rush of people coming from outside of California to apply for these licenses,” he said, noting the requirements around proving state residency. “This is not giving anybody a license. They have to earn it.”
Legislative Discord in Colorado
Colorado lawmakers also took action in 2013 to allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for licenses, approving Senate Bill 251.
When the licensing program launched the following year, a DMV website for applicants to make appointments crashed and froze as it was hit with thousands of visitors.
Those initial technology problems weren’t the only roadblock the initiative has encountered.
The S.B. 251 program met resistance in the Legislature last winter when Republican lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee moved to block its funding. “We are endorsing them being here illegally by giving them a state-sanctioned license, which is a privilege,” state Sen. Kevin Grantham, a Republican and Budget Committee member said in February, according to The New York Times. “That is not what our resources should be used for.”
A compromise was later reached that granted limited spending authority, enough to provide funding for three offices around the state that would issue the licenses.
As of Aug. 14, the state had issued 12,297 driver’s licenses under the S.B. 251 program, according to figures provided by the DMV on Monday.
“We’re a very large state, so just having three offices that accept these types of appointments is very challenging,” said state Sen. Jessie Ulibarrí, a Democrat who represents a district northeast of Denver. He stressed that Colorado's licensing program was set up in such a way that it is paid for with money collected from applicant fees.
Although he described a “lack of political will” among Senate Republicans to get more offices open, Ulibarrí said that law enforcement groups have been pressuring lawmakers to support the S.B. 251 program. He said these groups see it as a way to know who’s on the road, and to ensure that drivers pass eye and safety exams. There are other considerations as well.
“If you can’t get a license, you can’t get insurance,” Ulibarrí told Route Fifty on Tuesday. “Having more people licensed and insured really does benefit every single driver.”
But with only three offices issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants, he said that wait times were long, and that there have been cases where fraudsters booked appointments and then tried to sell them to people looking for a time slot at the DMV.
Asked what he thought was driving opposition to the program, he said: “I think it’s rooted in a fear of immigrants, and a changing demographic in the state.” Ulibarrí said he’s had angered people call him to complain about the law, but their opposition tends to diminish once they learn more details. “I explain the rationale for the bill, and they say ‘that’s a great idea.’”
The state senator added: “I’m optimistic that we can see the program grow.”
Virtual Waiting Rooms, Road Test Delays
The Connecticut DMV had planned to go live with an online appointment scheduling system for unauthorized immigrants seeking licenses through its “Drive Only” program last September. But the state ended up postponing after seeing the problems Colorado had with its website, according to the division chief for licensing, Lynn Blackwell.
Blackwell said the department found a software vendor to create a “virtual waiting room” to help handle the Internet traffic from applicants, and launched the website in December 2014 instead.
“Had we not done that our website would have gone down, too,” she said during an interview on Monday. “There was a huge surge.”
Blackwell added: “Fortunately we got to study the experience of those states that were ahead of us.”
Estimates issued prior to the launch of the Drive Only program indicated that there were about 54,000 undocumented immigrants in Connecticut. But within the first eight months, the state’s DMV saw 50,000 people try to make appointments to get the new licenses.
“Either they’ve all made their appointments, or there’s more than 54,000,” Blackwell said.
In a typical year, she said that the state does a total of about 600,000 license transactions, including renewals, duplicates and out-of-state transfers, meaning that the new applicants increased the overall volume of customers for the licensing division by about 8 percent.
“This was kind of new to us to have an entire class of people become eligible for a benefit and to have it happen right away,” Blackwell said.
To help handle the additional volume, the DMV added 18 staff positions. Most of these employees are agents who administer written knowledge tests and road tests.
Despite the beefed up staff, people complained that they were experiencing delays getting road tests scheduled.
Then a minor controversy erupted in July. An email was sent out from the DMV’s Driver Education Unit, to local driving schools, asking them to not tell customers that the Drive Only program was the reason people were experiencing long waits for road tests.
Connecticut DMV Commissioner Andres Ayala, Jr. later said that the email was incorrect, and that the program had, in fact, contributed to the lengthy waits.
“It wasn’t optimal,” said Blackwell when asked about the situation.
The road-testing schedule became jammed once summer arrived, she explained, a time when teenagers typically come in to get licenses. “It’s a struggle to have this many new customers, and to keep our existing customers satisfied with our level of service,” she added.
Key Areas for States to Consider
The new Pew report identifies four areas where policymakers will likely have to confront important questions if they decide to implement licensing programs for unauthorized immigrants.
One of these areas is the scope of the program. For instance, how many people will be eligible? How many will apply? And how often will they need to renew their licenses?
Others areas include: eligibility standards, which center on who can apply for a license and what type of documentation they’ll need to provide; issuing procedures, such as where people can apply for the licenses and whether they’ll have to make appointments; and, finally, what types of education and outreach efforts the state will undertake.
Blackwell believes that community outreach has been crucial for Connecticut’s program.
Last year, she and a handful of other department employees conducted a series of information sessions with community and church organizations. One of their goals was to “train trainers” among these groups, who could then help people interested in Drive Only licenses to understand the application procedures and testing process.
The outreach, she said, benefited applicants because “it helped more people pass their knowledge test,” and was also good for the DMV because “we don’t have enough staff to have people keep coming in to try to pass the test. They need to pass the test the first time.”
In terms of issuing licenses, the Pew report notes that states can face additional complications if they are trying to comply with the federal Real ID Act. The 2005 law set minimum standards for licenses that federal agencies can recognize as valid. In order to adhere to the act, states must issue distinctive alternative licenses to unauthorized immigrants.
For some applicants, other factors also come into play.
Priya Murthy is the policy and organizing program director at the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, an advocacy group based in California's Santa Clara County.
“I think for the most part, it has been a tremendous success,” Murthy said of A.B. 60. But she also said that for people with prior deportations, or other past legal issues, applying for a license has the potential to draw scrutiny from immigration authorities.
“If they apply for a driver’s license, then it increases the possibility that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] could show up at their door,” she said of people with legal complications.
For Alejo, the California assemblyman, the license program is just one example of how state lawmakers have had to pick up slack as Congress fails to advance comprehensive immigration reform.
“In light of inaction in Washington,” he said, “states like California have had to try to address more and more issues related to immigration.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of California DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez's last name. On second reference it was mis-spelled "Gonzales."
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.