Lack of access to driver’s licenses for some immigrants hurts Michigan’s economy, advocates say

Print More
Attorney Susan Reed is the director of  the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center,

Attorney Susan Reed is the director of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Capital News Service

LANSING – The potential spending power of undocumented immigrants in the state is over $2 billion, according to an estimate by Simon Marshall-Shah, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

However, he says much of that spending power is limited due to the inaccessibility of driver’s licenses for them.

“You’re excluding tens of thousands of people from being able to pay more tax dollars or from participating more in their local economy by driving to spend more money at a new business,” Marshall-Shah said.

About 91,000 people live in the state without authorization, making up around 1.2% of the population, according to the nonpartisan research firm Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. 

A 2019 report from the league estimated that there would be an additional $100 million in revenue for the state in the first 10 years after passing legislation expanding access to licenses for undocumented immigrants. 

That revenue would come from new vehicle purchases, sales and gas taxes and license fees, Marshall-Shah said.

A 2008 state law requires people to provide documentation showing “legal presence” in the country to obtain a license. 

Since then, legislative proposals to provide undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses have come and gone. 

Most recently, the DRIVE SAFE package — which would remove the “legal presence” requirement for a license — was introduced in April 2023.

Law enforcement officials criticize the proposal on the grounds of public safety.

The change would allow anyone who “meets the definition of having a residence in the state” to obtain a license or state ID card, according to a press release from House Democrats. 

The bills are pending in the House Committee on Regulatory Reform and the Senate Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Sponsors include Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, and Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor. 

Nineteen states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses, including Minnesota, California, Virginia, Utah and New York as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the National Immigration Law Center based in Los Angeles.

The current push for expanded access to licenses comes as the country heads toward a presidential election where Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has made immigration a central campaign issue. He has criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of the Southern border and has described immigrants as criminals.

Susan Reed, the director and attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center — an advocacy group with offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ypsilanti and Detroit that provides legal services — said her organization supports the DRIVE SAFE legislation. 

“Our clients need access to driver’s licenses and to transportation to take care of their families, to get to their jobs, to get to school and, really, to have freedom, dignity and safety,” she said.

Undocumented immigrants are often vulnerable to vehicle damage or physical injury while driving without financial protection because the lack of a license renders them ineligible for auto insurance, Reed said. 

“To have folks who are not able to get their license, who may not be able to purchase a registered vehicle in their own name but who have long residencies and very established lives here, needlessly leaves people out of the formal system of licensing and insurance,” she said. 

Another benefit of expanding access, Reed said, is that it would make it easier for more immigrants who have established residence in the country to prove their immigration status.

“People are generally able to prove their identity with their foreign passport, but proving immigration status and having it verified is something that can be slow,” she said. 

Delays in the process can also impair immigrants’ ability to be hired, Reed said.

“Not only would this legislation benefit people who don’t have immigration status, it would benefit a lot of people who do have immigration status but struggle with the process of proving it.”

Bob Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said his Okemos-based organization opposes the legislation. 

He said that opposition is unrelated to “the debate of whether or not people that are here illegally should have a driver’s license or not.” Instead, he said, “we are opposed to it because of the risk that it poses to public safety in general” if bad actors can obtain licenses.

He said DRIVE SAFE legislation would undo the REAL ID Act, a federal law passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that more strictly defined the documentation needed to prove one’s identity and obtain a icense or state ID.

All of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks had used fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses or state IDs to board commercial flights, according to a 2004 report from the 9/11 Commission. 

“One of (the commission’s) absolute recommendations, which they came out with, says that states need to crack down on what they’re doing for driver’s licenses,” Stevenson said. 

Stevenson said the pending legislation doesn’t provide a clearly enough defined “standard of proof” that applicants need to obtain a license and would let people use false or duplicated documentation to obtain a license. 

“We have zero confidence that the Secretary of State has the ability to vet this paperwork,” he said. “It takes the federal government, sometimes years, before somebody gets their final paperwork to stay inside the country, and we’re going to put this burden on the Secretary of State?”

The Secretary of State’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on its identity verification process. 

Stevenson said collecting fingerprints should be a “baseline” requirement for obtaining a license as police officers are sometimes unable to identify people wanted for crimes in states with lax laws for obtaining licenses or state IDs.

“We don’t even have any way to fingerprint them to determine that they’re not already wanted in this country for crimes,” he said. 

Comments are closed.