Undocumented and Unlicensed

For over 10 years, people in New Jersey have been fighting for legislation expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented people. Recently, the fight has been renewed with the Let’s Drive NJ campaign. Here, we take a look at some of the people fighting for and people that would be affected by this legislation.

The Fight to Drive

New Jerseyans continue to fight to expand access to licenses to undocumented immigrants.

For over a decade, activists in New Jersey have been fighting to expand access to driver’s licenses to undocumented people living in the Garden State. Former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine showed support for this but legislation never was passed, and for the last 10 years, former Governor Chris Christie was not in support of this kind of legislation, so the fight had come to a halt. Now, New Jersey’s current Governor, Phil Murphy has pledged his support for expanding licenses to undocumented people and has promised to sign the legislation to make it law. If this legislation passed, NJ would join 12 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing undocumented people to get licenses. The problem is, no bill has made it to his desk for the governor to sign.

The legislation, in the New Jersey known as Senate bill S3229 and Assembly bill A4743 “creates two categories of driver’s licenses and identification cards; allows residents unable to prove lawful presence in the U.S. to receive permits, and standard driver’s licenses or identification cards; permits MVC to increase certain fees.”

The licenses that would be accessible to undocumented people will, of course, allow them to drive legally, but it would not be acceptable for official federal purposes, like using it as identification to board a plane. The text of the bill also states that “any documents and personal information obtained by the MVC from an applicant for a standard license or identification card is confidential, is not to be considered by the MVC for the purpose of investigation, arrest, citation, prosecution, or detention related to an applicant’s citizenship or immigration status without consent of the applicant or without a court order or subpoena.”

“if they don’t pass this law, it would mean pretty much not being able to study, not being able to drive and it would really just destroy the future that we’re trying to create for ourselves here in the United States.”

The sponsors of the bill, which include Assemblywoman Annette Quijano and Senator Joseph Vitale hope that this legislation will improve road safety, and increase the number of insured drivers in the state. The bill has some support in the legislature including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, but New Jersey General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has not come out in support of the legislation.

Back in February, members of the Let’s Drive campaign, a coalition of organizations fighting for expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented people, held a rally outside of the Speaker Craig Coughlin’s office in Woodbridge NJ. There they made speeches, spoke to the press and delivered over 15,000 petition signatures urging the Speaker to bring the legislation up for a vote. “Unfortunately, we are still waiting to see this proposal passed through the legislature,” said Madelyne Montes Reyes, a Community Organizer for the activist group Wind of the Spirit, and a DACA recipient. With DACA expiring, if this legislation does not get passed, Montes Reyes will no longer be able to drive legally. And being the one who drives her husband and mother to work every day, losing the ability to drive legally will put a strain on her and her family.

Another DACA recipient and member of Wind of the Spirit, Giselle Gutierrez is in a similar situation to Montes Reyes, “if they don’t pass this law, it would mean pretty much not being able to study, not being able to drive and it would really just destroy the future that we’re trying to create for ourselves here in the United States.”

One of the organizers of the Let’s Drive campaign addresses the rally on a megaphone outside the office of NJ General Assembly Speaker, Craig Coughlin in Woodbridge, NJ, February 28, 2019. Image is a video screen grab.

According to the Director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice Johanna Calle, there are around 500,000 people who would benefit from the passing of this legislation. “In New Jersey, you gotta get around on public transportation if you don’t have a car,” said Calle, “As you know, you’re in the middle of winter, there’s snow that’s supposed to be coming, and we’ve seen plenty of our family members who have to ride a bike, or walk in this weather to get their kids to school, to get their kids to the hospital, to the doctor – that’s really what we’re going to see in terms of the real-life impact of this, to really change their lives and be able to get around.”

Not everyone is on board with the legislation though. A few months ago Republicans, Senator Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf, and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove put out an online petition titled “Tell Gov. Murphy that NJ Shouldn’t Give Driver’s Licenses to Illegal Aliens,” opposing expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented people. The first line of the petition reads: “Governor Phil Murphy wants to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens and spend more of your tax dollars in his foolish quest to turn New Jersey into a sanctuary state.” Senator Christopher Connors also wrote an opinion piece on the matter for the Asbury Park Press in which he talks about America being a nation of laws, criticizing Governor Murphy for making New Jersey a sanctuary state that will encourage more ‘illegals’ to come here, and claiming that most New Jersey residents are against supporting ‘illegals’ in any way.

The Let’s Drive campaign and different coalitions and organizations continue to fight to get the legislation passed. Not being able to drive in New Jersey means a lot of hardships for people. When a parent can’t drive, it’s difficult to bring children to school, to see the doctor, to do grocery shopping, and especially to get work to provide for their families.

American flags planted outside of Craig Coughlin’s office blow in the wind during the Let’s Drive campaign rally in Woodbridge, NJ, February 28, 2019. Image is a video screen grab.
Timeline Infographic of states that already allow undocumented people access to licenses.
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