Politics and Government

Immigrants driver’s license bill on way to governor’s desk

A woman speaks into a microphone by a crowd
Sen. Zaynab Mohamed speaks at a press conference in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses at the Minnesota State Capitol on Tuesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News
Leelo en español Proyecto de ley para que los inmigrantes obtengan licencias de conducir en camino al escritorio del gobernador

A proposal to allow immigrants in the country without authorization to apply for driver’s licenses and state IDs took another step on its way to the governor’s desk after the Minnesota Senate passed the bill early Wednesday.

On a 34-31 party-line vote, the Senate approved the measure after hours of debate. Democrats in the chamber supported the bill, while Republicans opposed it and sought unsuccessfully to amend it.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports the bill and will sign it into law when it reaches his desk. Applicants would still have to pass written and behind-the-wheel tests to be eligible for a license. The Minnesota House of Representatives next week is expected to concur with small changes made to the bill in a Senate committee before sending the bill to Walz's desk.

A big red sign says drivers licenses for all
Supporters of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver's license rally at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Roughly 81,000 Minnesotans lacking permanent legal status could be affected by the change. 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. 

The measure garnered support from immigrants, faith leaders, businesses, public safety and agriculture groups on its path through the Capitol. And supporters said Minnesota should approve the policy to improve public safety on roadways and to open up more opportunities for people in the state without proper authorization.

“Just outside this chamber, there are hundreds of immigrants whose lives will be completely transformed by this bill,” Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “And we have the power to do that. They'll be able to drive to work. They'll be able to take their kids to school, they'll be able to take their kids to the playground. And they'll be able to live their lives with dignity.”

Minnesota granted driver’s licenses no matter a person’s immigration status until 2003. But former Gov. Tim Pawlenty at that time prohibited people in the country illegally from obtaining licenses. The Pawlenty administration raised concerns about security following the Sept. 11 attacks.

People hold signs and wear masks
People rally in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses.
Tim Evans for MPR News

In the two decades since, supporters have pressed lawmakers to change the rule back to what it was before 2003. And they held out hope Tuesday that lawmakers would act.

At the Capitol, hundreds of supporters hoisted signs and urged senators to approve the bill as they entered the Senate chamber Tuesday night. They also shared stories of how not having licenses affected family members or friends and led to their deportations.

“Our state regressed 20 years ago and stripped our fellow Minnesotans of the ability to drive to work, to school and to their faith communities safely and without fear,” said Veena Iyer, Immigrant Law Center Minnesota’s executive director. “Today, the Minnesota Senate has the power to, and I believe will, return to Minnesota history and restore driver's licenses for all.”

A person in a Indigenous dance outfit listens
Socorro Cruz, a dancer with the Indigenous dance troupe Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue, listens to a press conference of those in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses.
Tim Evans for MPR News

GOP lawmakers raised concerns about the ID cards being used to cast a vote when someone might not be eligible to do so. And they brought forward amendments that would create an indication on the ID cards that they are for driving only, push back the effective date until after the federal Real ID program is implemented, and require that vehicle services officials check that applicants aren’t named in criminal databases.

“This is a major policy bill and major policy change in the state of Minnesota. And with a one party-control in Minnesota, we are not seeing that compromise,” Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said. “So the urgency to get this through is going to cause many, many issues across our state. Our deputy registrars have already been put to the test. And now we're going to stress them more by passing this bill.”

Secretary of State Steve Simon earlier in the day said that Minnesota already has precautions in place that prevent people who are ineligible from casting a ballot. And changing the law to allow the additional IDs wouldn’t change that, he said.

“It's not a new thing in Minnesota for people who aren't eligible to vote, whether it's 16 or 17-year-olds, whether it's people who are under guardianship, whether it's people who like my mother were immigrants to this country,” Simon said. “I have every confidence in the Department of Public Safety, and the firewalls that they already have in place I've been using for a long, long time to make sure that people who aren't supposed to vote, do not vote.”

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

Editor’s note (Feb. 23, 2023): This story has been updated to note the bill must go back to the House for a final vote before it reaches the governor.

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