Washington, DC Proposes Unequal Drivers’ Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

(Credit: The Georgetowner)

On Thursday afternoon, District of Columbia Mayor Gray will announce legislation titled the “Drivers Safety Act” that aims to grant a separate type driver’s licenses to undocumented DC residents. Given that DC lacks voting representation, Congress would still have to approve the bill’s passage — which it is highly unlikely to do.

According to Council member Mary Cheh, the proposed driver’s license would be used solely for vehicular operation and not for entering federal buildings or boarding airplanes, making them distinctly different licenses than legal residents hold.

Allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to drive would be a boon for public safety. Proponents indicate that the licensing process will make state roads safer because undocumented immigrants must pass a test before they obtain a license. Immigrants would also have to buy auto insurance. Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates that uninsured undocumented drivers account for $64 million in damage claims.

But while issuing driver’s licenses is undoubtedly a good step towards bringing people out of the shadows, it hardly deals with the larger issue of integrating undocumented immigrants into a society that discriminates against them based on their most vulnerable distinction, their legal status. Separate licenses can stigmatize immigrants and effectively create a “second class” society — something immigration advocates hope to avoid.

In some states, like Illinois, proposed unequal undocumented licenses have already gained traction. A similar measure was also undertaken on Wednesday when Oregon’s Governor Kitzhaber signed Senate Bill 833 which grants a four-year temporary license to undocumented immigrants. Oregon’s undocumented immigrants will have to wait until the bill goes into effect on January 1, 2014 to apply for driver’s licenses.

Last month, Maryland also passed comparable legislation, which will be signed into law on Thursday by Governor Martin O’Malley. Undocumented immigrants with Maryland’s license would not be able to board planes with their licenses.