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Each of these 11 jurisdictions (California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) has taken its own path to enact and implement a law that allows unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. There are many similarities in their approaches but also some critical differences. New Mexico and Washington issue the same license to all applicants, regardless of immigration status, while eight other states and the District of Columbia issue distinctive licenses—referred to by a variety of names—to those who do not have explicit permission from the U.S. government to reside in the country. Decisions at various points in the legislative or regulatory processes, or during implementation, affect how these laws work and what impact they have. In 2015, Delaware and Hawaii enacted laws to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, but they have not yet begun issuing them. Policymakers in these two states and others considering similar legislation can gain insights from the experiences of jurisdictions that have these laws.
An analysis by Pew found wide variation in the choices that jurisdictions made to provide licenses to unauthorized immigrants. The report identifies eight key takeaways across four main categories of decisions that are critical to putting these policies in place. The main categories are:
Pew’s analysis did not examine the factors contributing to states’ decisions to issue licenses to unauthorized immigrants or the merits of those decisions, nor does Pew take a position on this issue.
States estimate how many people will be eligible, how many will apply, and how often they will need to renew their licenses. These estimates are critical in determining the expected cost of implementation and the amount of revenue likely to be generated from new customers.
States determine who is eligible to obtain a driver’s license and which documents the applicants can use to prove eligibility. Because unauthorized immigrants may not have the same types of documents as U.S. citizens or lawfully present immigrants, states make choices about what they will accept as proof of identity and state residency.
States need to make choices about the application and renewal processes for alternative licenses. Issuing agencies are likely to experience spikes in new applicants while continuing to provide services to existing customers.
Potential applicants need information about eligibility and document requirements as well as application and testing procedures. Ensuring that applicants are adequately prepared for their first visit reduces the burden of repeat visits.
In upcoming legislative sessions, more states are likely to consider whether to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, while some that already do may consider making changes to their laws. These decisions unfold in the context of the federal REAL ID Act, the 2005 law that created national standards for driver’s licenses and provided parameters for licensing unauthorized immigrants.
State decisions also are likely to be affected by federal executive actions that, if fully implemented, could allow millions of unauthorized immigrants who meet certain conditions to obtain the documents needed to apply for regular driver’s licenses under existing state laws. All of these factors will affect the choices that states make about providing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants.