‘All Minnesotans deserve this’: MN House passes driver’s license bill

A photo of people dancing in the Capitol
Supporters of a proposal to allow people in the country without authorization to obtain Class-D driver's licenses performed traditional dances Monday in the Capitol rotunda and called on lawmakers to pass the proposal through the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News
Leelo en español

The Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill to allow people in the country without authorization to apply for Minnesota driver’s licenses and state IDs.

On a 69-60 vote, the House approved the measure, which is also working its way through committees in the Minnesota Senate. Applicants would have to pass a knowledge and behind-the-wheel test to be eligible for a license.

Minnesotans were able to obtain a driver’s license no matter their immigration status prior to 2003 as long as they completed the tests. But former Gov. Tim Pawlenty at that time prohibited those in the country illegally from obtaining licenses. His administration at the time raised concerns about security following the September 11 attacks.

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In the 20 years since that policy took effect, immigrants, faith leaders and business groups have pressed lawmakers to change the rule back to what it was before 2003. But the measure came up short under several prior compositions of the Legislature.

Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul, is one of the bill’s authors and she said that she’d taken a role as a godmother to many kids in her community because their parents couldn’t legally drive because of their immigration status. She urged policymakers to pass the bill to ensure that immigrant communities could drive legally and obtain insurance.

“We are working together in movimiento, in movement, because we want justice and we want the capacity for our kids to not live in a trauma,” Pérez-Vega said. “Our Minnesota deserves this. All Minnesotans deserve this. We’re all united.”

A person speaks at a podium and others watch
State Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul, on Monday spoke to reporters at the Capitol about her proposal to allow immigrants in the country without authorization to obtain driver's licenses in Minnesota.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

As the bill made its way through legislative committees, it received support from a broad swath of immigration, faith, business, agriculture and law enforcement groups. Supporters  said it would help immigrants, boost the economy, and improve safety on Minnesota roadways.

Despite that, some GOP lawmakers voiced concerns about the licenses not having some designation indicating that they were non-citizen licenses. And they brought forward amendments that would more clearly indicate on a license that someone was not a U.S. citizen and was not authorized to vote.

“Somebody might inadvertently do this (vote) and not know it because it doesn’t tell them on the card,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said. “What I wouldn’t want to see happen is to have a good person deported. So what we could be doing is actually protecting somebody that has no idea what we were talking about today.”

The secretary of state’s office has said it has a system to prevent unauthorized people from registering to vote. And anyone who casts a ballot illegally could face felony charges and deportation. In states with similar laws on the books, reports of unauthorized immigrants casting ballots are exceedingly rare

Other opponents were more critical. 

“There’s issues with it. There’s problems with it,” said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, adding that the bill was being “rammed through” the House without adequate public safety considerations.

People stand in the Capitol and show their backs to the camera
Supporters of a bill that would let unauthorized immigrants obtain driver’s licenses and I.D. Cards on Monday stood outside the Minnesota House of Representatives, cheering and urging lawmakers to pass the proposal.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Supporters of the bill said putting a mark on the licenses would make prospective recipients “second-class citizens” and could subject holders to discrimination. And they said if more background checks were needed for immigrants, they should also apply to everyone seeking a driver’s license.

Ultimately, DFL lawmakers voted down several proposals to make the license cards appear distinct from current licenses and to increase scrutiny on applicants. 

“This bill is about safety. This bill is about respect. This bill is about dignity,” said DFL Majority Leader Jamie Long of Minneapolis.

Eighteen states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico currently let residents apply for and obtain driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. An estimated 81,000 Minnesotans lacking permanent legal status here could become eligible to apply and test to receive a license.

Advocates for the policy packed the rotunda on Monday, holding up signs that said “licenses for all” and calling out to lawmakers to pass the bill without amendments. They stood outside the House chamber during the hours of debate, singing, dancing and yelling out in support of the change and cheered when the bill passed.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports the change and that he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.