For many years in Albany, legislators and advocates have debated an issue critical to New York State residents: Should undocumented immigrants be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses?
In our city alone, nearly 500,000 immigrant New Yorkers are undocumented. Our research (www1.nyc.gov/assets/immigrants/downloads/pdf/moia_annual_report%202019_final.pdf#page=11) suggests that one out of six immigrants living in Queens is undocumented. This is first and foremost an issue of safety. Everyone who drives should have to pass a test and have a license — and forcing people into the shadows makes everyone less safe.
Not only that, but ensuring that more people on our streets have the proper licensing and insurance makes us safer. Studies suggest that in communities that have equalized access car accidents (pnas.org/content/114/16/4111, rwu.edu/sites/default/files/downloads/lpi/drivers-license_report-legal.pdf) and the cost of insurance (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/soej.12022) both decrease.
Opponents of driver’s licenses for all argue it is wrong to extend “privileges” to people flouting federal laws. They suggest that undocumented immigrants should get legal status the “right” way, and then they can get driver’s licenses.
But here’s why such notions are misguided. The responsibility of all city government offices — including my own — is to promote the well-being of all of New York City’s residents. This is why our policies and programs serve all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status.
Undocumented workers are the backbone of many industries in New York, and they should be paid fairly and without fear of retaliation, just like every worker in our state. Driver’s licenses for all would put us another step closer to making New York City the fairest big city in the country.
And on this metric, 12 states (nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/drivers-license-access-table.pdf), the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are all ahead of us. We must follow the lead of communities as different as California and Utah, and stop discriminating against undocumented New Yorkers who need to be able to drive.
While we continue to advocate for a comprehensive fix to our broken immigration system in Congress, we should not wait to right what is wrong here in our own state. That is what we did by passing the NYS DREAM Act, and we should do the same on driver’s licenses. As Mayor de Blasio has succinctly said, “driver’s licenses for all — it’s fair, it’s smart, it’s safe.”
Lawmakers in Albany are vigorously debating driver’s license legislation this session. If this issue is important to you, make your voice heard by contacting your representatives in the NYS Assembly, (assembly.state.ny.us/mem/search) and Senate (nysenate.gov/find-my-senator) today.
Bitta Mostofi is Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.