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It is not clear how the state will roll out the requirement, or which out-of-state licenses it will declare invalid.
A law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month takes aim at a long-standing practice among states: that they honor each other’s driver’s licenses.
The new Florida law declares that out-of-state licenses are “invalid” if they are issued “exclusively to undocumented immigrants who are unable to prove lawful presence in the United States when the licenses are issued.”
The types of licenses that are invalid under the law also include those that are similar to driver’s licenses held by legal residents and citizens if they “have markings establishing that the license holder did not exercise the option of providing proof of lawful presence.”
If police pull over someone with one of those licenses, the law instructs the officers to issue a citation for driving without a license. That is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail.
These provisions are part of a sweeping anti-immigrant bill passed by Florida lawmakers that has sparked protests throughout the state and condemnation by national immigrant and civil rights groups. Other aspects of the law require medium and large companies to use E-Verify to screen new workers, prohibit local governments from issuing their own ID cards for undocumented immigrants and provide funding for the relocation of migrants to protest federal immigration policy.
But the approach toward driver's licenses is so novel that immigration lawyers, motorist groups and civil rights organizations are still trying to figure out how it would work and who it would apply to.
In fact, Florida officials say they’re still working on the roll out of the law, which takes effect in July.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is responsible for keeping a list of out-of-state licenses that would be considered “invalid” on its website. Molly Best, the agency’s director of communications, said the department “is currently working on the interpretation of this bill and what areas within the department will need to adapt or change because of it, and how it will affect the customers we serve.”
Best did not provide substantive responses to Route Fifty’s questions about the process the department would use and whether other states would have a chance to weigh in. “At this time, I am not able to provide a response as it is an ongoing process that is not yet in effect. Please feel free to reach out after July 1 for a more detailed response,” she wrote earlier this month.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that allow immigrants to drive legally, even if they are living in the country illegally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Those jurisdictions, though, take many different approaches toward immigrants driving. Those distinctions could be crucial in determining whether, for example, their residents would be allowed to drive their family on a vacation to Disney World.
Utah has issued 33,123 “driving privilege cards” that are not intended to be used as identification or to be accepted by other states, said Hillary Koellner, the communications director for the Department of Public Safety. By comparison, there are more than 2.3 million active driver’s licenses in the state.
In New York, though, a 2019 law allows New Yorkers who are 16 years old or older to apply for standard driver’s licenses and learner permits, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. In fact, the state department of motor vehicles is prohibited from asking a customer about their citizenship status.
At the same time, New York also issues a separate category of licenses that complies with the federal Real ID Act. The 2005 federal law—which is not yet being fully enforced—requires license holders to verify their identity and legal presence in the country if they want to use their driver’s licenses to board commercial aircraft or enter federal buildings.
States must mark Real ID-compliant licenses with a star at the top of the card, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cautions against assuming that someone with a license that does not comply with Real ID is in the country illegally.
So would a standard New York license, that is not Real ID-compliant, be accepted by Florida police? The answer would appear to be “yes,” given that it is not issued “exclusively” to people in the country without legal permission. On the other hand, the licenses do show that the driver did not “exercise the option of providing proof of lawful presence.”
“We are monitoring the implementation of the new law in Florida and are awaiting the publication of additional information from the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Department,” said Walter McClure, the director of public information for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
In New Jersey, though, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy criticized Florida for targeting immigrants.
“The Murphy administration has made tremendous strides toward promoting opportunity among our undocumented community members,” said Bailey Lawrence, a deputy press secretary for the Democratic governor. “It’s shameful that states like Florida would seek to undermine such progress by enacting a cruel and punitive law that will only make drivers less safe. Despite this backwards policy, we will remain committed to status-neutral licensing and creating opportunity for all residents, regardless of their immigration status.”
A Colorado official warned about the safety implications of Florida’s new policy but said it did not appear that the law would apply to Colorado drivers.
“Colorado does not have a driver’s license specific to undocumented immigrants; we do have standard licenses, which are issued to a variety of Coloradans, including undocumented immigrants, international students, refugees, temporary workers and pending asylees,” explained Derek Kuhn, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Given the new laws in Florida, we encourage all Coloradans who have a standard driver license to use caution if traveling to or through other states,” he added.
But a 2013 Colorado law that attracted bipartisan support has made roads in the Rocky Mountain state safer, Kuhn said. “The law has ensured that about 250,000 Coloradans have been licensed and are proficiently trained to safely operate a motor vehicle and are able to obtain insurance, which is of utmost concern should they be involved in a motor vehicle incident.”
Eli Rohl, a public information officer for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, noted that the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators “recommends” that states honor valid licenses from other states. But, he added, “there is no binding agreement that they have to.”
Nevada does not issue documentation “exclusively” to anyone of any particular immigration status, and Nevada state laws prohibits the department from disclosing “anyone’s lawful presence or immigration status to any federal, state or local entity for any purpose relating to the enforcement of immigration laws,” Rohl noted.
The “driver authorization cards” that Nevada issues are not considered legal identification and only authorize drivers to operate motor vehicles on Nevada roadways. They can be used for drivers who are waiting to obtain their identity documents to qualify for a standard license or Real ID. An honorably discharged veteran, for example, could use their discharge papers to qualify for a driver authorization card (DAC), Rohl explained.
“Many states choose to acknowledge the validity of a DAC, but—again—are not required to,” he said. “A U.S. citizen may choose to utilize this same authorization card as an undocumented person; because Nevada law forbids us from disclosing anyone’s residency status, it would be very difficult for an out-of-state law enforcement agency to ascertain that information during a routine traffic stop or brief detention.”
“Ultimately,” Rohr said, “how another state chooses to treat someone using an out-of-state driver’s license or authorization document is up to them. The state of Nevada recognizes the validity of driver’s licenses from every other state.”
Route Fifty attempted to contact agencies in every state that allows people to drive legally, even if they are in the country illegally. Many officials did not respond or said they are still evaluating the potential impact of the new Florida law. Here are the responses from the remaining states:
California: “The California DMV can’t comment on what the Florida law might mean for California residents traveling in Florida because we haven’t yet seen the official list of what state licenses Florida considers to be invalid in Florida. We continue to monitor the situation,” said Anita Gore, the deputy director of the DMV’s office of public affairs.
“In California, a driver’s license has no indication of immigration status and licenses for undocumented immigrants look the same as all non-Real ID licenses. A California Real ID is optional. A current California driver’s license is valid, whether a Real ID or not,” she added.
Delaware: “The Delaware DMV does issue a Driving Privilege Card (DPC) to undocumented Delaware residents, which provides valid driving authority within the state of Delaware,” wrote Kathryn Beasley, the chief of communications for the Division of Motor Vehicles. “If a Delaware DPC holder wishes to drive outside of this state, they should contact that particular state to determine acceptance. The Delaware DMV is unable to speak on behalf of Florida law enforcement.”
Delaware’s driving privilege card is only available to foreign Delaware residents who are unable to produce legal presence within the United States and meet certain eligibility requirements, she noted. The card explicitly states “Driving Privilege Only” and “Not Valid for Identification” on its face.
New Mexico: “The Florida law references licenses and permits that are issued ‘exclusively’ to unauthorized immigrants. New Mexico does not issue any credentials exclusively to unauthorized immigrants,” wrote Charlie Moore, the director of communications for the Taxation & Revenue Department.
Rhode Island: The state is in the process of rolling out a law signed last year that grants driving privileges to undocumented residents. “The credential we will issue will be the same as a Rhode Island non-Real ID license,” wrote Paul Grimaldi of the Department of Revenue. “It will look exactly the same as the credential held by 471,183 other Rhode Islanders who have a non-Real ID (ie. “NOT FOR FEDERAL IDENTIFICATION”).”
“There will be no indication on the license or the individual's driving record that they are an undocumented individual so Florida, or any other state, will not know the person is undocumented,” Grimaldi added.
Vermont: Vermont started issuing driver privilege cards in 2014, at the same time it started issuing Real ID-compliant licenses. Anyone who didn’t have the documents on hand (or refused to provide them) would receive a driver privilege card, explained Michael Smith, deputy commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Smith even issued Gov. Peter Shumlin a privilege card when the governor lost his driver’s license and didn’t have the documents he needed, Smith said.
Currently, Vermont has 67,465 people on file with credentials that are not Real ID-compliant, compared with 615,582 with licenses that meet the federal standards. State officials can see the systemwide totals of people with the different kinds of cards, but they cannot get a report listing all of the people who have each type of authorization, Smith noted.
“The first person [Florida] arrests [with a Vermont privilege card] probably will be a U.S. citizen, will not be breaking the law, and you’ll probably see some huge lawsuit,” Smith said. “These documents from Vermont really only say you can drive. They have nothing to do with your legal status.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.