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Drive underway to license undocumented residents

The battle to legally include undocumented immigrants on America’s roadways has waged across the country for years, and now it appears poised to make its way to the First State. WDDE’s James Dawson explores the new push – and the potential fallout – should Delaware extend driver privilege cards to those living in the shadows of society.


That’s the number of undocumented immigrants estimated to be currently living in the state by the Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles based on a 2008 Pew Research Foundation Study.

It’s a figure representing nearly four percent of the total population of the state.

If concentrated in a central location, this group of people would rank as Delaware’s third largest city, just behind Dover and trailing Wilmington’s nearly 71,000 residents.

And many in that population drive up and down the state’s roadways every day, prompting lawmakers to analyze the best way to address the issue.

Proponents view it as a safety concern. They say teaching undocumented immigrants to drive safely and mandate that they carry vehicle insurance carries benefits that ripple across society.

Detractors say it legitimizes the initial act of entering the country illegally.

State senators recently approved establishing a task force to assess the feasibility of issuing driver privilege cards.

Up to 28 diverse members would sit on the panel including lawmakers and representatives from various chambers of commerce, insurance brokers, community groups and even the Delmarva Poultry Industry.

The idea may have just hit the floor at Leg Hall recently, but it’s been a topic that’s been on certain lawmakers’ radar for a while.

Senator Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington West) asked Jennifer Cohen, the state’s director for the Department of Motor Vehicles, about issuing full licenses to undocumented residents last May.

Cohen issued a white paper on the subject in June, concluding what many other states have argued: their compliance with the federal Real ID Act would be in jeopardy.

That law passed by Congress in 2005 forces strict requirements on states issuing identification cards.

IDs from states not in compliance with the act can’t be used to enter federal buildings or for boarding a plane.

Cohen also estimates the price tag for implementing such a program could hit nearly $1.6 million – roughly $300,000 dollars of which would be recurring costs.

“That is a huge deal,” said Cohen. “Now with the understanding that we would be issuing more [drivers privilege cards] so we would recoup those costs over a longer period of time, but coming up with those one-time, up-front costs, that’s going to be a significant hurdle.”

But dollars and cents don’t spell out the entire problem.

Driver privilege cards aren’t drivers’ licenses, meaning other states aren’t forced to recognize it.

Javier Torrijos chairs the Delaware Hispanic Commission, which threw its support behind the initiative.

He notes that this is one of the main problems facing similar programs in other parts of the country.

“There’s no reciprocity when it comes to driving privilege cards among states,” Torrijos sais. “So each state is left up to its own to basically issue these drivers licenses and they’re taking a gamble.”

Another hurdle for supporters is earning the trust of undocumented immigrant communities.

Torrijos says convincing them that law enforcement won’t contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service for driving offenses could be difficult.

“They already have that fear, but at least if they have a driver privilege card they know that at least they’re on the road legally, whereas if they get arrested the same thing can happen. They can be reported to INS, be deported and so forth,” said Torrijos.

However, Delaware wouldn’t be an island in the Mid-Atlantic region should lawmakers choose to create these cards.

Last year, the Maryland legislature gave the green light to a similar two-tiered drivers license system that went into effect January 1st. The Baltimore Sun reports nearly 13,000 undocumented residents signed up to take their drivers tests this month.

Having a neighboring state with a similar law could be a boon to the First State. Cohen says she’s already had early conversations with Maryland’s DMV Administrator about the issue.

“Just because I can’t guarantee reciprocity doesn’t mean Maryland wouldn’t accept it,” said Cohen. “But the problem with that is when you have all of these different states doing their own thing and different variations of privilege cards then the reciprocity issue becomes more tricky, for lack of a better term.”

Currently, 11 states and Washington, DC issue some form of driving privilege card for undocumented residents.

A study by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research points out some state formerly offered these cards, but reversed their stances for a variety of reasons including REAL ID Act compliance, political pressure and others.

One of the most vocally opposed to these programs, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez annually attempts to repeal her state’s law, saying the Land of Enchantment acts as a beacon for undocumented immigrants seeking a license.

The lone vote against establishing the task force in the General Assembly’s upper chamber came from Senator Dave Lawson (R-Marydel), a retired Delaware State Police trooper.

Supporters of the proposal note that undocumented immigrants signing up for car insurance is critical to addressing public safety concerns

But Lawson says he doesn’t think they would comply with any sort of legislation.

“Just because we pass a law doesn’t mean they’re going to comply with it. They’re already here illegally, so it shows their propensity to be illegal, to do illegal acts, so why would they do that? They are not going to comply,” said Lawson.

Giving undocumented immigrants what he calls a pass on initially skirting the law is unacceptable.

During the debate, Senate Pro Tem Patricia Blevins said she would appoint one Republican member to the task force, but Lawson says he has no interest in serving.

Prime sponsor of the task force, Senator Bryan Townsend (D-Newark) shares some of Lawson’s concerns.

“We can give driving privilege cards all day long, but if the Hispanic community or other communities of undocumented Delawareans don’t embrace the opportunity and also if people aren’t getting auto insurance – that’s a key part of it – then the system is not going to work as well as it needs to,” said Townsend.

However, despite potential rough patches the task force may encounter if approved, Townsend says he’s had nothing but positive conversations with liberals and other conservatives alike.

“Now, I didn’t do a 100 person survey or a 1,000 person survey but [they were] people from across the political spectrum and most saw the importance of doing it and the merit behind it,” said Townsend. “So we’ll see how people view that and whether it has a strong consensus off the bat or how long it takes us to work through the issues.”

Should Townsend’s House colleagues create the body, the legislation sets out an aggressive agenda.

The body will meet no later than three weeks after it’s approved by both chambers and will issue its recommendations by October 31st.

While early support on the senate side for the task force was strong, that leaves no guarantees as to how an actual vote on legislation might turn out.

Even if legislation passes through the General Assembly, Governor Jack Markell (D-Delaware) seems reluctant to take a position without further study by the task force.

In a statement, a Markell spokeswoman said, “We believe the Task Force is an appropriate way to study this issue and make recommendations and we appreciate Senator Townsend’s leadership on the issue.”

Last year, his office also touched on the need for comprehensive federal immigration reform as part of the solution.

But with congressional gridlock dashing hopes for comprehensive federal reform, states picked up the slack in 2013.

Immigration related bills in statehouses across the country totaled 437 in 2013, a 64 percent increase from 2012 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Eight of those laws pertained to some form of driver privilege cards.

So the responsibility may ultimately lie with individual states for the time being, leaving undocumented immigrants in a quasi-legal limbo uncertain of what the future might bring.