New York City; Jan. 26, 2005 – Relief expressed by immigrantsâ€™ rights advocates last month when a controversial provision stayed out of the final version of the intelligence reform package passed by Congress appears likely to be short-lived. New legislation barring undocumented residents from obtaining driverâ€™s licenses, pushed by the same congressman who championed last monthâ€™s failed proposal, is expected to be introduced as early as this week.
Since there is no federal law governing the matter, fights over granting undocumented immigrants licenses to drive have largely been conducted at the state level. Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia already demand that applicants prove they are in the country legally. But now, undocumented immigrant drivers and their allies fear that federal legislation may take away any remaining chances they have to drive legally. Meanwhile, on the state level, groups continue the debate over an issue that encompasses road safety, economic opportunity and national security.
For Alfredo, news that New York would begin barring driverâ€™s licenses from undocumented immigrants demanded a road trip. During the previous eight years he has worked as a cab driver in Brooklyn, but when he attempted to renew his license last May the Brooklyn office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) demanded to see a Social Security card. Later that same week he traveled to DMV offices in Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, hoping to slip through a bureaucratic crack. "It didnâ€™t do any good," he said. All demanded the one item of information he did not have.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have found immigrants like Alfredo and Silvia unwittingly thrust into a raging debate around national security.
From the small town of Chinantla, south of Mexico City, Alfredo made the journey north in 1986, too late to qualify for the amnesty program enacted under President Reagan. One day in June, just a month before his New York license was set to expire, he received some good news from a cousin living in Wisconsin. "He told me that you didnâ€™t need to have your [immigration] papers to get a license there," he explained, his voice low. "So I went to Wisconsin."
During a two-week period in July he opened a Wisconsin bank account and set up an appointment with the local DMV. Alfredo returned home to New York with a Wisconsin license in hand. "This is the job that I have been trained for," he stated. "I know practically every street in New York City, so what else do they expect me to do?"
Meanwhile, across the country in San Jose, California, Silvia wakes up each morning and warms up her car, preparing to head out to one of the fifteen homes she cleans each week. She arrived from the Mexican state of Michoacan in 1997, and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Erica, joined her in 2000. "Iâ€™m nervous when I drive, because without a license I know that they can always take my car away if they stop me. But I always make sure to obey the speed limit," she explained.
Yet it is this insistence on following the posted limits that has caused Silvia so many problems with other motorists. "People always get mad at me because I drive according to the speed limits," she said. "The one question I still donâ€™t know the answer to is this: Do I respect the speed limit, or do I respect the speeds that other people with licenses want to drive?" Thus far, Silvia said, she still is obeying the signs and ignoring the angry commuters.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have found immigrants like Alfredo and Silvia unwittingly thrust into a raging debate around national security. Thus far, each state has the power to decide whether or not to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driverâ€™s licenses. In New York and California, high profile campaigns have found organizers fighting an uphill battle -- one that has so far been unsuccessful.
In New York, according to DMV spokesperson Christine Burling, Alfredo is one of 6,000 commercial drivers that recently received letters stating their Social Security numbers do not match their names. To date, less than 20 percent of these drivers have come in and verified their Social Security numbers; all others will see their licenses suspended within the next two weeks. The DMV will then move on to non-commercial licenses, sending out more than 250,000 letters announcing a pending suspension.
In California, after a protracted fight, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill in 2004 that would have permitted licenses for undocumented immigrants, citing national security concerns. With so many immigrants like Silvia continuing to drive illegally, there is still an ongoing effort to resolve the problem by creating a special license for undocumented immigrants, though many advocates are skeptical about such proposals.
"It would essentially be like tattooing â€˜undocumentedâ€™ on the forehead of people," said Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), an umbrella policy and advocacy group. "It doesnâ€™t seem likely that many people would go for it."
Tennessee is the only state to have implemented a two-tiered driverâ€™s license system for undocumented immigrants, having begun to issue driving "certificates" in July of last year. However, many difficulties have emerged, especially when drivers have attempted to obtain auto insurance. A January 14 article in The Tennessean quotes David Lubell, state coordinator of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, as saying "a lot of insurance companies who will not accept a driving certificate, and others are charging extremely high rates."
In New York, the NYIC has responded to the DMVâ€™s crackdown by joining with groups like the National Employment Law Project and Taxi Workers Alliance to oppose the suspensions. Although they have sent three letters and even delivered thousands of postcards to his Manhattan office asking for a meeting, Governor George Pataki has not responded.
Instead, he has preferred to negotiate with Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America and the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers. Mateo, who was a speaker at the Republican National Convention, earned "Ranger" status for raising more than $200,000 for the Bush campaign -- joining an elite group that also includes Governor Pataki himself. Nothing concrete has yet emerged from these negotiations, but they could eventually lead to a two-tiered license system like the one already in place in Tennessee.
If efforts in New York are not successful, however, the state will join California and 38 others that require applicants to prove their lawful presence before being granted a license, according to the National Immigration Law Center. And even if immigrant advocates are ultimately successful in New York, the new bill soon to be introduced by a Wisconsin congressman could make their efforts irrelevant.
Federal License Law Proposed
Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, Jr., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, first made headlines last fall on the issue of immigrant driverâ€™s licenses when he threatened to delay the vote on the 9/11 intelligence reform bill. A staunch conservative, he balked when a round of negotiations stripped his provision intended to keep undocumented immigrants out of the driverâ€™s seat. Eventually, under increasing pressure from Bush, he allowed the vote to come to the floor, where it passed easily.
"The sense is he cut a deal with Bush," Vimo told The NewStandard. "He agreed to let the bill go through [without his provision], and we think in return was assured that he would get support in the future for his bill."
Sensenbrenner is now ready to renew the fight. "My first goal in the 109th Congress is to pass meaningful immigration language to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving driverâ€™s licenses," he stated in a January 7 press release. He is widely expected to introduce the new bill when the next session begins on January 26.
Although Sensenbrenner was not available for comment, his views regarding driverâ€™s licenses have circulated widely. On November 20, Sensenbrenner claimed that the 9/11 Commission, "realizing that the nineteen 9/11 hijackers had 63 validly-issued US drivers licensesâ€¦wisely recommended [that] the â€˜federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driverâ€™s licenses.â€™"
But the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, the successor to the 9/11 Commission, has actually not recommended stripping driver privileges from undocumented immigrants, and the commissioners never actually stated that the 9/11 hijackers had 63 licenses. As they explain in a fact sheet, "We did not make any recommendations about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigations, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentationâ€¦[and] were therefore legal immigrants at the time they received their driverâ€™s licenses."
As to the claim that the 9/11 hijackers were discovered to have 63 driverâ€™s licenses, it seems that the much-reported number was simply fabricated. In a December 27 article in the Los Angeles Daily News, journalist Lisa Friedman reported that she could find no evidence that the number was legitimate.
"I don't know where the 63 number came from," Al Felzenberg, spokesperson for the commission, told the Daily News. "It did not come from our report." Indeed, the 9/11 Commissionâ€™s exhaustive research turned up only 13 licenses issued to the hijackers, two of which were duplicates.
For organizers across the country, the threat of the Sensenbrenner bill looms large. "It would essentially kill all the state-wide work weâ€™ve done," said Vimo. "And the effect will simply be to drive the immigrants further underground, and create dangers on the roads. It definitely wonâ€™t make anyone safer."
Indeed, an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report, Unlicensed to Kill, found that unlicensed drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers. And with so many immigrants like Alfredo and Silvia dependent upon their cars for their livelihood, the number of people driving illegally (and therefore without insurance or training) will surely skyrocket if Sensenbrennerâ€™s bill were to pass.
Also of concern to advocates is talk that Sensenbrenner may attempt to attach his bill to another, impossible-to-reject piece of legislation. The Congressional Quarterly reported in December that GOP leaders will likely target upcoming appropriations bills for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as candidates. Now with the Tsunami disaster in Asia, there are even rumblings that he may be hoping to attach his bill to a forthcoming relief package.
But while the volume of debate in Washington around immigration and driverâ€™s licenses promises to escalate, immigrants like Silvia will quietly continue to drive without licenses; the houses of the wealthy will not clean themselves, after all. Her daughter is now also driving without a license, needing a car to juggle two jobs and classes at a local community college. And for the moment, Alfredo is still able to legally shuttle people around New York City. Asked what he will do if the Sensenbrenner bill passes, Alfredo donned a scoffing expression.
"Iâ€™ll drive without a license, of course," Alfredo said matter-of-factly "This is the work Iâ€™ve done since I arrived. Iâ€™ll keep driving, but it just means Iâ€™ll be driving illegally." He paused, reflecting on the future. "I guess thatâ€™s the point."