This op-ed appeared in the February 6, 2018 edition of The Star-Ledger.
Earlier this month, Phil Murphy took the reins of the governor’s office, bringing a long list of priorities to help make New Jersey fairer and stronger for everyone, as well as a strongly stated – and frequently reaffirmed – commitment to protect the state’s half million undocumented residents from a bevy of attacks from the Trump administration.
While the federal attacks on New Jersey’s immigrants are unlikely to stop, the good news is that there are state-level policies Gov. Murphy can advance that will make the Garden State a fairer and more welcoming place for all who choose to live here. At the top of that list is expanding access to state driver’s licenses to all residents who can prove their identity, regardless of their immigration status. This common-sense policy – which is already on the books in 12 other states and D.C. – will make New Jersey’s roads safer and increase the well-being of families – without costing the cash-strapped state anything. (In fact, an expanded license program would raise new revenue for the state.)
Allowing more drivers to access a new, limited license would make New Jersey’s roads safer, in large part because there would be more people who are trained, licensed, insured and accountable for their driving record. Drivers would also be less likely to flee the scene of an accident, since they would be licensed and insured. This is exactly what happened in California after it passed a law similar to the one New Jersey is considering. In addition, towns and cities across the state would be safer as the trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement improves.
There is no other state-level policy that can have a greater impact on the daily lives of mixed-status families. These families are made up of U.S. citizens (often children) and undocumented residents (often parents). These families constantly live with the anxiety of being separated from one another. This increases when they have to make a choice to drive without a license to complete necessary daily tasks such as taking their children to school and doctors’ appointments..
Expanding access to New Jersey driver’s licenses could help the state’s an estimated 466,000 undocumented community members of driving age. Of those nearly half a million eligible new licensees, we estimate that about half – 233,000 – would obtain a license within the first three years.
But this expansion stands to help other vulnerable New Jerseyans as well, including the transgender community, U.S. veterans, homeless people, people who do not have money to renew expensive identifications required under the current system, and others. This limited driver’s license would allow people to drive legally and confirm their identity, but it could not be used to board an airplane, apply for a job or obtain benefits.
Unlike some of the pressing priorities confronting the new governor, expanding driver’s licenses would not only pay for itself, but would also generate new revenues. The state would likely collect nearly $12 million in license fees in the first three years of implementation. But even more important is the fact that New Jersey’s economy works best when everyone can work and provide for themselves and their families. Across the state, having a car with the ability to drive legally and safely is central to achieving that goal. By expanding access to driver’s licenses, Gov. Murphy and the legislature can help more New Jerseyans participate in, and contribute more to, the state’s economy.
Gov. Murphy has promised that New Jersey will now be a state that fights against the federal agenda targeting the most vulnerable by pushing for state policies that work for everyone. For this to happen, lawmakers have to treat immigrants – both documented and undocumented – as the assets they are, and push for common-sense immigration policies that would help the Garden State stand out as a fair and welcoming place for everyone. Gov. Murphy can begin by putting a policy to expand access to driver’s licenses at the top of his legislative agenda.
With the governor’s leadership, New Jersey can become the 13th state to allow all its residents to apply for driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status and send a clear message across the country that he is serious about putting New Jersey on a more welcoming and fairer path.