The ability to drive a car can be essential to getting many everyday tasks done: taking the kids to school, picking up groceries, going to the doctor and, perhaps most importantly, getting to work. Yet most states do not issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
This leaves undocumented immigrants who have settled in the U.S. with a difficult choice: meeting their daily needs or risking arrest for driving without a license. A driver’s license also makes a convenient identity document (ID) with which to obtain many essential services and benefits.
Safety Reasons to Grant Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants
Many people consider availability of driver’s licenses for undocumented residents and workers to be a public safety issue. Drivers who are trained, tested, and insured are likely to be better drivers. They are less apt to get into accidents or to flee the scene of an accident. And a drivers' license alone neither confers nor indicates lawful status in the United States, so offering these to undocumented immigrants does not impinge upon federal immigration laws.
Limits on Types of Licences States Can Offer
Even states that wish to offer undocumented immigrants drivers' licenses must comply with the terms of the federal REAL ID Act, which Congress enacted in 2005.
This Act says that if states' drivers' licenses are to be accepted for federal purposes (that is, for things like boarding a commercial aircraft or entering a federal building), the states must fulfill various requirements, including verifying applicants' citizenship or lawful immigration status, putting a temporary, "valid only until" type limitation on the licenses of non-citizens in the U.S. for a temporary lawful stay (such as on a work visa), and marking nonconforming licenses so that they are recognizable as unacceptable for federal purposes.
Additional federally required features include a digital photo, signature, security features, and machine-readable technology.
The upshot is that no state can offer a license to an undocumented immigrant that looks exactly like the licenses U.S. citizens and others may carry.
In California, for example, the drivers' license available to undocumented immigrants under a law known as AB-60 can be used for driving purposes only, not as proof of identification. To indicate this, AB-60 licenses say "Federal Limits Apply" in the top right hand corner of the front side, and have the statement "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes" on the back.
Which States Offer Drivers' Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants
A number of U.S. states offer undocumented immigrants some form of a drivers' license. The exact terms vary by state.
As of this writing in 2016, a total of 12 states plus the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. These 12 states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Washington.
The typical requirements to obtain such a license include that the applicant provide proof of identity and nationality, most likely in the form of a foreign birth certificate, foreign passport, or consular card; as well as proof of current residency in the state. Applicants may also need to provide proof that they pay federal and state income taxes.
Not all of these states follow the California model of saying the license is for driving purposes only and cannot be used to prove identity in other contexts. Also, some states have the cards expire long before a citizen's card would, such as after one year.
Drivers' Licenses for DACA Recipients
Under a 2012 Executive Order issued by President Obama known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), certain undocumented immigrants brought to the United States before the age of 16 are eligible for deferral of deportation and authorization to work. But technically speaking, they are not awarded full legal "status" in the U.S., and a grant of DACA is only temporary.
This prompted a great deal of controversy among the U.S. states as to whether DACA recipients should qualify for drivers' licenses. After various legislative activities and court challenges, the vast majority of U.S. states allow DACA recipients to get a drivers' license.
Questions for Your Immigration Lawyer
The law surrounding drivers' licenses, traffic offenses, and undocumented immigrants is complicated. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. It is not legal advice. For more detailed, specific information regarding your situation, please contact an immigration lawyer. You might wish to ask such questions as:
- Do I qualify for any form of legal status that might offer me a "regular" state drivers' license?
- Will past arrests for driving without a license be held against me if I wish to obtain a state drivers' license now?
- I don't speak English; is there a way for me to take the driving exam in my own language?
- What would happen to me if I tried to use a "driving only" license as an identity document in my state?
- Do I qualify for DACA? And will it allow me to get a state drivers' license?