Advocates call on Legislature to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented Minnesotans

A illustration of a drivers license
Versions of the “Driver’s Licenses For All” bill have floated through the Legislature for more than a decade.
Illustration by Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Hibah Ansari | Sahan Journal

Advocates are calling on the new DFL-controlled state Legislature to pass a bill within the first 45 days of the 2023 session that would allow undocumented people to obtain a driver’s license.

Versions of the “Driver’s Licenses For All” bill have floated through the Legislature for more than a decade, stalled by a split Legislature and other agenda priorities. But the bill could find new life next year after Minnesotans elected a majority of DFL legislators to the state House and Senate, and reelected DFL Governor Tim Walz in November. 

The 2023 legislative session will also feature the state’s most racially diverse set of lawmakers.

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Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina, a Minneapolis-based organization that advocates for the Latino community, is leading the effort in Minnesota. 

“We have a new opportunity,” said Francisco Segovia, the organization’s executive director. “We have new political power, so we have to take advantage of this time.”

Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina hosted a launch event on November 29 for their campaign to push the Driver’s Licenses For All bill in the 2023 legislative session, which begins January 3. 

Claudia Lainez, the organization’s workers’ center coordinator, said everyone is endangered when undocumented people can’t obtain driver’s licenses, and that undocumented drivers currently face immigration consequences if they’re caught behind the wheel.

“Some people that dare to drive without driver’s licenses in many cases, they ended up separated from their families because they end up in deportation,” Lainez said through a Spanish interpreter. “Many families have been separated because of this anti-immigrant law.”

There are an estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Veena Iyer, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said granting undocumented people the ability to obtain a driver’s license ensures safer roads across the state. 

Boston-based public radio station WGBH reported in 2019 that hit-and-runs decreased by nine percent in Connecticut after the state started issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants. In California, those crashes decreased by seven to 10 percent, according to a Stanford University research study. 

“Immigrant moms, dads, sisters, brothers—people who have been living and working in our community for such a long time—are subject to potentially being pulled over and put in jail, various fines, potentially reported to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for doing nothing less than driving to work, driving their kids to school,” Iyer said.

Iyer added that the bill has widespread support among community advocates, business interests, and law enforcement. She expects it to pass quickly.

Years-long fight

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety changed driver’s license eligibility rules in 2003 under then-Governor Tim Pawlenty to require proof of lawful admission to the United States. State Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-Minneapolis) first pushed for a bill to eliminate that requirement during her first term in 2007. 

Torres Ray’s effort gained little traction until 2013, when the state Senate passed a version of the Driver’s Licenses For All bill sponsored by Senator Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis). The bill then died in the House. Democrats held the majority in all branches of state government that year.

Another version of the bill passed through the DFL-controlled House in 2019, but lost support in the Republican-majority Senate.

Champion was named the state’s first Black Senate President after Democrats gained a slim majority in the Senate by one seat in the November 8 general election. Democrats will hold 70 seats in the House compared to Republicans’ 64 in the 2023 legislative session.

Torres Ray won’t be returning to the state Legislature, but she said she’s confident that the next class of legislators will pass a Driver’s Licenses For All bill. She hopes it will pass within the first 45 days of the session because, she said, the policy has been thoroughly vetted through the years and is ready for passage without additional work.

“It’s also a good practice for the Legislature, because they have such big issues that they have to deal with,” Torres Ray said. “Those issues require a tremendous amount of money, complex policy. To leave these kinds of bills that are ready and that have been vetted for so long but leave the community pending, it’s not necessary and it’s not fair.”

However, Champion said it’s unlikely that a Driver’s Licenses For All bill will pass in the first 45 days. 

The state budget is the Legislature’s main priority, he said. Carefully crafting a driver’s license bill that will clarify rules and requirements, protect undocumented immigrants, and address concerns about driver’s license accessibility will take time, he added.

“It is going to require a number of discussions—a real solid look at it—to really make sure that we’re not making those who get this license still feel ostracized,” Champion said. “There’s all these nuances and all these things you have to consider.”

For example, he said, legislators will have to consider how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can access driver’s license information. Champion said lawmakers will also have to address concerns that these driver’s licenses can be used to register people to vote; undocumented immigrants are ineligible to vote. 

Champion suggested that driver’s licenses for undocumented people could possibly state on the license that they can only be used for driving.

Iyer said concerns about such licenses being misused for voting purposes are “a bit of a red herring.” Plenty of people can’t vote despite having driver’s licenses, she said, such as people who have a green card, those who are serving a felony sentence, and people with a Minnesota driver’s license who have moved away. 

State Representative-elect María Isa Pérez-Hedges attended the recent launch event hosted by Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina and supports the driver’s license bill.

“We have the trifecta now,” Pérez-Hedges said of the DFL dominance at the Legislature and in the governor’s office. “This is an opportunity to do something about it.”

Eduardo Peñasco, an organizer with Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina, called on attendees at the virtual campaign launch to join them at the state Capitol on January 3, 2023 at 10 a.m. for a rally supporting the bill.

“We are going to march to conquer a better level of life for our families,” Peñasco said. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there to mobilize driver’s licenses for this session, and it will be very special because it will be my first day sworn into office,” Pérez-Hedges responded.