Virginia lawmakers vote to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly voted Tuesday to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driving privileges.

Advocates packed the Capitol for the votes, filling an overflow room where an interpreter translated the debate as unfolded on the floor of the Senate.

“It’s very, very important for me – this moment,” said Ingrid Vaca, who immigrated from Bolivia 20 years ago and lives in Alexandria. She teared up as she described deciding between driving without a license illegally, risking arrest and deportation, and spending two-hours traveling by public transit every morning to her job cleaning houses.

“My life was in the hands of all the people who voted today,” she said.

The Senate voted 22-18 to adopt its version of the legislation, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver privilege card.

To obtain the card, they will have to meet all the requirements necessary for obtaining a standard driver’s license, but must also have filed an income tax return. The cards would have text on the top stating that it is “not valid identification for federal, voting or public benefit purposes.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposed the measure. He argued many undocumented immigrants are currently driving illegally. Making sure they passed driving tests and are insured will make roads safer. He also described it as a critical quality of life issue.

“People need to be able to get to a job, take their kids to soccer, go to the doctor,” he said. “It’s an absolute necessity. This is one of the few bills we’re going to vote on this session that will change over 100,000 lives the moment it becomes law.”

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a nonprofit policy group in Richmond, estimated the new law would result in between 124,500 and 160,792 new drivers licensed, generating a minimum of $10 million in new title fees, sales tax receipts, license plate fees and new car registrations.

The House’s version of the legislation, proposed by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, is somewhat more permissive, granting undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain traditional driver’s licenses with no special restrictions. It passed Tuesday on a 57-42 vote.

Under both bills, the credential would not serve as a Real ID, a new standard the federal government is rolling out nationwide, which will be required to board airplanes and enter certain federal facilities.

The House and Senate will now debate the differences between the two versions of the legislation.