Immigrants won a major victory in New York this year with the passage of historic legislation to restore access to driver’s licenses to all, regardless of immigration status. Beginning in December, New York will join the growing wave of states with such policies. And, while some on the right are fear-mongering about this new law, New Yorkers should look forward to the change. In neighboring Connecticut, we have already seen positive results, including safer roads for all, economic benefits, and greater peace of mind for immigrants.
In 2015, Connecticut transformed its state and the lives of thousands of immigrant families with a law that offers driver’s licenses for all residents, regardless of immigration status. Our state followed others, like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, with similar policies.
Since then more than 50,000 undocumented immigrants have applied for a driver’s license. With more licensed and insured drivers, data have shown that our roads have become safer for all drivers. Plus, there has been a $7.5 million influx to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) over the last four years, revenue that greatly surpassed the law’s $300,000 implementation cost.
A driver’s license is necessary for all residents, especially outside of urban areas. Faced with limited or nonexistent public transportation and no access to a driver’s licenses, undocumented families in Connecticut used to have to choose between remaining stranded or driving without a license. Those who drove risked a routine traffic stop that could result in possible arrest and deportation.
Take Rosa Romero, a single mother of three children in Connecticut who was previously too scared to drive because she could not obtain a license. Rosa spent hours each day getting to her two jobs and taking her children to school taking unreliable public transportation. Rosa explains, “My life changed when I was able to get my driver's license. Now I can take my children to school, go to work and spend more time with the family without fear. Being able to have a driver's license makes me feel safe and free.”
Now, families like Rosa’s — especially those living outside major cities and those who have to travel long distances for decent work — are better able to get to work, take their children to school, and take care of other basic tasks like going to the supermarket. In New York’s rural and suburban areas, the same will be true.
After an inspiring organizing campaign led by immigrant New Yorkers and supported by a broad coalition of New York residents, the state will join 13 other states and reap similar benefits to those we have experienced in Connecticut: improved road safety, a boost to state coffers, and greater protections for vulnerable people.
In New York, the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that 752,000 people will be eligible to apply for a driver’s license at the end of the year, and more than 250,000 will likely apply in the first three years. This increase in registration will not only cover the DMV cost; it will create an estimated $57 million in additional annual revenue and $26 million one-time revenue for state and local governments and transit authorities.
The same research finds that the state should see a reduction in traffic accidents, just like in Connecticut, because all drivers on the road will have to previously taken both a written and road test.
This historic victory will also play a critical role in keeping families together. Equal access to driver’s licenses in Connecticut and other states has provided critical protection for immigrant families, for whom a mere traffic stop in the past could mean being taken from one’s loved ones. Access to driver’s licenses in New York will similarly protect undocumented immigrants from falling into the family separation pipeline.
Anti-immigrant opponents of the new law are now trying to stop the implementation of this new law, including with two looming lawsuits. While these racially motivated lawsuits attempt to discredit the driver’s license law, we know from our experience in Connecticut and that of other states that not only are these policies on strong legal ground, they have also worked well.
Allowing all drivers, regardless of immigrant status, access to a driver’s license makes sense. Now, by the end of the year, New Yorkers too, will begin seeing the benefits to communities across the Empire State.
Lopez is director of Make the Road Connecticut. Kica Matos is director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice.