Cecilia, an undocumented immigrant living in Mercer County, says she drives scared for the 15 minutes it takes her to get to work. But her commute would be difficult any other way.
"You don’t have options unless you take two or three buses to get to a job,” said the 50-year-old woman, who has lived in the United States for more than a decade. “You always feel when you go out of your house, you pray to God the police doesn’t stop you for any reason or you are not involved in any accident.”
Cecilia, who asked that her last name not be disclosed, is one of an estimated nearly half-million undocumented immigrants of driving age in New Jersey who aren’t eligible to get driver’s licenses, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank.
State lawmakers are again pushing a plan that would allow them to drive legally.
“That’s my dream,” Cecilia said. “That’s been my dream for years."
Similar bills have appeared in the New Jersey Legislature on and off for the last dozen years, but advocates said they are hopeful about their chances with the one introduced in the Senate last week — and with one-party control of state government. Gov. Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have both said they support the proposal.
If the bill passes, New Jersey would join 12 other states, including Delaware and Maryland, and the District of Columbia in giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, who often drive without them or find other means to get around.
Besides allowing people to drive legally, the licenses also act as identification for residents looking for jobs, housing, and health care. The bill would not allow undocumented immigrants to receive state services or use the licenses to vote, since they are not citizens.
The bill’s sponsors said the legislation also will benefit others who lack or have lost key identification documents.
Supporters say giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make all residents safer, since some immigrants are already driving without licenses and car insurance. Opponents decry extending the privilege to people who are in the country illegally.
In addition to the license provisions, the bill includes language to implement REAL IDs, the identification cards that must meet post-9/11 federal security standards. As of Oct. 1, 2020, any U.S. resident who wants to board a domestic flight or enter certain federal buildings must either have a REAL ID-compliant card or a passport. Both types of licenses require proof of age and New Jersey residency. Residents need to have Social Security numbers or other proof of legal U.S. residency to get REAL IDs.
The proposed licenses would look different in design or color from the REAL IDs.
Early next year, Philadelphia officials plan to begin issuing municipal identification cards, for which all Philadelphia residents — including undocumented immigrants — will be eligible. Cities such as Newark, N.J., New York, and Chicago offer municipal IDs, which city officials say also benefit low-income residents and youth who can’t get state identification.
New Jersey Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz, a cosponsor of the bill who has also supported past versions, said in a statement that the “countless undocumented immigrants who pay taxes and go to work every day in New Jersey” are “mothers and fathers striving to make a better life for their children and contributing to the economic growth of their communities.”
“Offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to a legal driver’s license would reduce their chances of encountering legal troubles while trying to make a living, while also making the roads safer for all New Jerseyans,” said Ruiz (D., Essex).
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, a Union County Democrat and that chamber’s deputy majority leader, is expected to sponsor a companion bill in the coming weeks.
Delaware has issued about 6,500 driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants since the Division of Motor Vehicles began disregarding citizenship status in 2015. Of those, about 5,900 are current.
In May, Republican state lawmakers in New Jersey who represent parts of Burlington, Atlantic, and Ocean Counties issued a statement decrying any effort to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, after, they said, they received “complaints from outraged constituents.”
“Notwithstanding that this is an inappropriate use of limited public resources, there are the serious homeland security issues at stake which simply cannot be disregarded for the sake of political expediency," said Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove. "No, not every person in the country illegally is a security threat. Regardless, it would be completely irresponsible and negligent for New Jersey to circumvent proven, effective policies instituted to protect public safety.”
Camden Councilman and former Assemblyman Angel Fuentes said he is developing a council resolution to support the bill, which council members have done in the past. He said he knows of undocumented immigrants who have no choice but to walk their children to school in brutal weather.
“I think this is a humane way to handle this situation," Fuentes said.