NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For years, a movement has been growing across the state to change the law and allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.
Let’s Drive New Jersey, a coalition that brings together nearly fifty community, faith, labor, social service and advocacy organizations has grown into a powerful force behind the proposal.
The proposal aims to benefit undocumented immigrants, but also seniors, victims of domestic violence and transgender individuals who either can’t acquire the documents required to get a driver's license under the current system.
According to a report by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), one of the member organizations in the Let's Drive coalition, about 233,000 undocumented immigrants would receive licenses within the first three years of implementation. Middlesex County would see an estimated 28,000 sign up, second only to Hudson County.
NJPP also predicts that the state would collect approximately $11.7 million in license fees and $2.3 million in one-time fees for driving permits, and that newly-licensed drivers would purchase an estimated 84,000 automobiles, boosting vehicle registration fees by $3.9 million.
Another would see about $209 million in new insurance payments and lower costs reduced car insurance premiums for all drivers because of a larger pool of insured drivers.
New Brunswick was home to a rally held in support of the cause on March 24, and organized by Movimiento Cosecha, an organization that works outside of the coalition.
Cosecha has also held other rallies throughout New Jersey cities this year, and is gearing up for a major action of their own starting in Trenton's Columbus Park at 10am on September 17.
“The licences would allow immigrants to drive without fear of being deported and harrassed,” said Alejandro Jaramillo, a Movimiento Cosecha organizer in Rahway who works closely with their "circle."
Cosecha’s approach differs from the Alliance for Immigrant Justice because they focus solely on organizing and mobilizing the people instead of elected officials.
Through its horizontal leadership, non-affiliation with political parties and its aim to mobilize primarily locally, Cosecha is also organized differently from most advocacy groups.
“If the people are strongly behind something, eventually the elected officials will pass laws,” Jaramillo said. “It’s important to mobilize the immigrant community so they can come out without fear.”
Jaramillo says the campaigns have been well received, especially by immigrant communities.
“They’ve been waiting for someone not to say ‘I’m going to fight for you,’ but ‘Let’s go, we’re going to fight together.’”
Activists are hopeful that this year could be the one that they finally get their wish and see New Jersey become the thirteenth state to give its undocumented population driving priveleges. The District of Colombia and Puerto Rico also allow their undocumented residents the ability to get licensed.
Reynalda Cruz, a New Labor organizer who lives in New Brunswick, helped get the word out about the campaign as part of an organized outreach action at over 25 other commuter hubs throughout New Jersey during the morning rush hours of May 1.
There was much support from commuters, with only a few people saying they didn’t want to sign the campaign's postcards.
“Licences are connected to immigrant people,” Cruz said. “Immigrants need license for a lot, to go to work, to the hospital if they’re sick, to pick up children. They will have access to better jobs. It will improve the economy of the state.”
Cruz says many immigrants have been pulled over by police for not having a licence, and when they attend court they are risking getting detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
New Labor, a member of the Let's Drive coalition, has been advocating for expanding driver’s license since 2006 when the bill was first proposed, and has met with many legislators and Governor Phil Murphy to push for the bill.
In November 2014, the New Brunswick’s Latino community packed a City Council meeting as the Council considered a resolution calling on the state government to issue "driving privilege cards" to undocumented residents, as we reported.
City Council approved that resolution 5-0, making the city the second municipality in New Jersey, after Camden, to call on the state to take action.
Former Governor Chris Christie strongly opposed the proposal during his administration and saying in 2015, "All the things that you need to do to identify yourself, a driver’s license does that. I cannot give driver's licenses to people who I cannot be sure who they are and it’s that simple. I’m not doing it.”
With Governor Murphy not in office and promising to sign the bill and seven primary and 13 co-sponsors in the Assembly, Cruz is confident that it’s only a matter of time until driver’s licences are expanded.
On the day of Murphy’s inauguration, Cosecha mobilized about 200 people in Trenton to hold Murphy to his promises for the immigrant community.
On May 9 he signed a bill allowing undocumented immigrant students to apply for financial aid, one of several promises he has made good on in his first eight months in office.
Recently, Murphy's Motor Vehicle Commission Chief Sue Fulton told New Jersey 101.5 that the MVC is looking at information from the twelve states, and the District of Columbia, that provide such licenses.
Fulton said this year the MVC will issue its annual updated driver manual in Spanish as well as English and they’ve already installed translator phones in all agencies.
Fulton said that she believes these licences will make the roads safer, a point that the bill's proponents have emphasized.
"Allowing more drivers to access a new, limited license would make New Jersey’s roads safer, in large part because there would be more people who are trained, licensed, insured and accountable for their driving record," reads a February op-ed published by NJ Policy Perspective in the state's largest newspaper.
"Drivers would also be less likely to flee the scene of an accident, since they would be licensed and insured. This is exactly what happened in California after it passed a law similar to the one New Jersey is considering. In addition, towns and cities across the state would be safer as the trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement improves."
More than one million immigrants have acquired licences in California since AB 60 was passed into law in 2015.
A 2017 study by Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab explored effects of the law in its first year, finding that hit-and-run accidents decreased by an estimated 4,000 in 2015 from 2014 because immigrants were less afraid of deportation.
Policy Perspective declared in their op-ed that "There is no other state-level policy that can have a greater impact on the daily lives of mixed-status families."
"These families are made up of U.S. citizens (often children) and undocumented residents (often parents). These families constantly live with the anxiety of being separated from one another. This increases when they have to make a choice to drive without a license to complete necessary daily tasks such as taking their children to school and doctors’ appointments."
The special driver's licenses would say "Federal Limits Apply" on the front, with the following statements on the back: "This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.”
The license alone cannot be used to enter a federal facility or board a commercial airplane.
Still, some are concerned that the special licenses could make their holders targets for discrimination or deportation.
For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union has cautioned holders of the California licenses, “If you present your AB 60 license in a state other than California, you may be at risk depending on the laws and policies of that state.”
“If the bill is passed it needs to address privacy issues,” said Hera Mir, Communications and Operations Associate, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
“I’m concerned if this data will be used against them. The need for driving shouldn’t be used to deport.”
The current bill reads that information gathered in the application process will not be considered a public record and “notwithstanding the provisions of section 2 of P.L.1997, c.188 (C.39:2-3.4), shall not be disclosed to any federal, State, or local governmental entity without probable cause or a valid warrant.”
It also reads these drivers licences can’t be considered “evidence of an individual's citizenship or immigration status and shall not be used as a basis for an investigation, arrest, citation or detention,” and, “Any public official who discriminates against an individual who holds or presents a driver's license issued under this act shall be guilty of a crime.”