Mayor Vincent Gray proposed legislation in May to allow undocumented immigrants to have a valid driver’s license, but it came with a catch: The licenses would be differentiated with the statement “not acceptable by federal agencies for official purposes.” This was to comply with the federal government’s REAL ID Act, which requires certain standards if IDs are used to enter federal buildings or board airplanes. Activists warned it would “mark” the undocumented and further stigmatize them.
Councilmember Mary Cheh, the committee’s chair, was initially skeptical about issuing one license, but her committee concluded that complying with a law that hasn’t been enforced since its inception was not worth the harm it would do to undocumented residents.
The committee report noted that an undocumented immigrant is kept from freely participating in society without proper identification. Immigrants without ID are often forced into low-wage jobs that don’t require ID and live in abysmal conditions. The report also pointed out that it would benefit the city by ensuring drivers are adequately tested and have insurance and proper registration before getting behind the wheel.
Of the estimated 25,000 undocumented DC residents, the report said that about 15,000 would be eligible for a license. If, however, the license included the marking, it would have the unintended consequence of revealing the immigration status and dissuade individuals from obtaining a license by stigmatizing the population.
The Gray administration still fears backlash from the federal government that could include sanctions, the loss of federal funding, and the invalidation of DC licenses in federal settings, like airport security checkpoints or on applications for Social Security benefits. However, out of the nine states that allow licenses for the undocumented, New Mexico and Washington state do not differentiate licenses for undocumented residents and have not experienced any consequences from the federal government.
Kirsten Gibson is an intern for ThinkProgress