License undocumented immigrants? It’s safer than having unvetted, unlicensed drivers.

February 3, 2020 12:01 am

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Nothing makes a conservative’s blood boil faster than the idea that immigrants who haven’t cleared all the legal hurdles are getting a right or privilege in this country. It’s no coincidence that “Build the wall!” was (and remains) a galvanizing battle cry among President Donald Trump’s supporters.

Immigrants have long been a fact of life all over Virginia — those here legally and those here not so legally. Mobility, however, is a necessity for them all, and that means they’re going to drive, particularly in rural areas where mass transit isn’t an option.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia grant driver’s licenses to immigrants without regard to their immigration status. Virginia is not among them. For years, legislation to change that was shot down in Republican-ruled General Assemblies. This year, those bills may have better prospects with Capitol Square under Democratic management.

Driving is a privilege conferred by the states, not a right. It galls some U.S. citizens — those born here and immigrants who have done the hard work of becoming naturalized — that newcomers not legally present are granted the privilege.  

Safety is the driving issue behind the legislation, not just for immigrants but the overall motoring public.

Unauthorized immigrants are going to drive. Faced with such imperatives as getting to work to feed one’s family or taking a sick child to a hospital, need always trumps statutes. And therein lies the danger.

Unlike licensed drivers, immigrants living in the shadows — many times unfamiliar with traffic laws or basic rules of the road — undergo no training or safety vetting. They don’t wait for hours at the DMV, take written and on-road tests and have vision exams. Nor do they buy automobile insurance. They’re literally accidents looking for a place to happen.

And then what? An unlicensed driver is more prone to flee, particularly one lacking legal immigration status who fears staying at the scene of a crash will result in his deportation.

“A licensed driver is more likely to remain at the scene of an accident and exchange insurance information with the other driver,” said Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Policy, who lobbies Virginia lawmakers in support of the change. The institute is part of the Virginia Coalition for Immigration Rights, comprised of pro-immigrant, civil liberties and legal aid organizations, labor unions and other groups.

Data from states that previously legalized licenses for unauthorized immigrants backs her up. In Connecticut, the number of hit-and-run accidents declined by 9 % from 2016 to 2018, something some safety experts and police ascribe to the change in the law, according to a report last year from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. A California study also showed “a significant effect in reducing the rate of hit-and-run accidents” after the state issued 600,000 licenses to unauthorized immigrants in 2015, the year the law took effect.

In New Mexico and Utah, the rates of uninsured vehicles dropped by 24 percentage points and 20 percentage points, respectively, since they began granting licenses to undocumented immigrants.

In Virginia, a similar change would not only make the highways safer, it would benefit the state’s economy and possibly boost state revenues, Goren wrote in a Commonwealth Institute analysis published last month.

Her report projects that changing the law would result in 124,500 to 160,800 additional licenses being issued in the first two years after its enactment. With so many more street-legal drivers, the number of vehicle purchases and registrations would jump by a projected 31,125 to 56,904. Add up all the related fees and taxes incumbent with car ownership, and state would gain anywhere from $10.9 million to $17.7 million, the analysis concludes. That may be just what the bills need to pass muster when they go before House and Senate budget-writing committees.

The sponsor of the Senate bill, Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, believes the revenues would be slightly higher because the Commonwealth Institute paper didn’t include revenues from personal property taxes on cars collected by localities or the state tax on insurance premiums.

The law would grant undocumented immigrants’ driving privileges, but they would not be eligible for Real ID cards that the federal government will require beginning Oct. 1 for boarding domestic flights or entering a secure facility. It would, however, solve the biggest daily obstacle for immigrants who comprise about 23 percent of the population of Surovell’s district which spans portions of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.

“Several years ago, we had a town hall in my district to talk about issues affecting the Latino community,” said Surovell. “We were expecting questions about things like education, but the first question we got was ‘When can we get driver’s licenses?’ It’s a basic quality-of-life issue for them.”

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has opposed the measure in previous years and voted against it Thursday when it cleared the Senate Transportation Committee on an 8-7 party-line vote. He says the measure would incentivize illegal immigration. He also said that under a newly amended version of the bill, the card would be barely distinguishable from regular driver’s license.

Sara Chavez of Vienna, a single mother of two who came to the United States 21 years ago from Peru and is pursuing permanent legal residency, knows the obstacles firsthand. She relies solely on public transit to get to the two janitorial jobs she works six days a week. Though she knows how to drive, she doesn’t have access to a car and wouldn’t drive anyway until Virginia licenses her to do so legally.

“I understand the risks and I’m not going to do it,” she said. “There are risks to the bus as well: the weather, being late for work or appointments. But I am going to do everything the law says. If I have a driver’s license, then I will have a car and drive legally.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]