Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants should be available by May 1, NJ says
Gov. Phil Murphy signs legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a state driver's license at the Snyder Academy in Elizabeth on 12/18/19. NorthJersey.com
New Jersey driver's licenses could be available to undocumented immigrants by May 1, ending a delay that had incensed immigration advocates.
The state Motor Vehicle Commission approved regulations on Friday for the new licenses, which were originally supposed to roll out as of Jan. 1. The state announced last month that the coronavirus pandemic had delayed training necessary for MVC employees who'd be processing the licenses.
The rules adopted unanimously by the MVC board also loosen a requirement that applicants provide a Social Security or Tax Identification number, which immigrant advocates had called a major barrier to getting a legal license.
"The proposed amendments will further expand access to the privilege of operating a motor vehicle in New Jersey and ensure that those on the roads are tested, trained, licensed and insured,'' Kristen Miller, a regulatory officer for the agency, said during the online hearing.
The regulations will require those applying for the "status-neutral licenses" to meet the state's six-point identification system by showing proof of a Social Security number or an Individual Tax Identification Number, a tax processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service. If an applicant cannot provide one of those, an amendment introduced Friday allows them to submit an affidavit attesting they are ineligible to receive a Social Security number and to certify that they don't have an ITIN.
Immigrant advocates had lobbied for the changes for months. Without the affidavit option, many undocumented immigrants would be deterred from obtaining the licenses because they would have had to go to the Social Security Administration and request a letter that would state why they could not obtain a Social Security number.
Social Security numbers are issued to citizens, permanent legal residents, and non-citizen immigrants who have been authorized to work in the U.S. Unauthorized immigrants can’t legally obtain one due to their immigration status.
"The regulations the MVC board is voting to adopt and amend now accurately reflect the spirit of this law,'' said Katy Sastre, campaign strategist for New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. She urged the commission to "maintain this momentum" to ensure access to licenses for all of New Jersey's half-million undocumented immigrants.
State lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy voted in 2019 to create two types of licenses: one compliant with the federal Real ID Act that would let users board domestic flights, and one strictly for driving that will be known as a “standard driver’s license." That second document would be issued to immigrants regardless of legal status along with certain senior citizens and others who may lack paperwork to meet the current requirements.
The law was supposed to go into effect on New Year's Day, but late last month, the MVC announced that it had had to delay training due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commission employees need to learn how to verify foreign documents, Sue Fulton, the MVC's chairwoman and chief administrator, said at Friday's hearing
"Due to COVID-19 and the impact on our workforce it is very difficult to pull a large number of people off the line to do this type of detailed training,'' she said. "This training requires physical as well as visual inspections of documents. That means in-person, and social distancing is required. We will move as fast as we can without sacrificing the safety of our employees."
Gloria Blanco, a member of Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource center in Morristown, said some of her own family members would benefit from the licenses. The delay has added stress for immigrants, so the MVC should move as quickly as possible, she said.
"For us, the driver's license is not a luxury," she said. "It is a need.''
Kevin Escobar, a community organizer for Wind of the Spirit, said without a timetable, those needing the new licenses were left in limbo and vulnerable to scammers. The inability to get a legal license has implications far beyond just the ability to drive, he said, especially during a COVID-19 basis that has "hammered" immigrant communities.
"Without licenses, access to medical services have been limited," Escobar said. "Access to steady employment where they may not otherwise find work in their area has been limited. Access to food security options have been limited."
Escobar said his grandmother recently died from complications of COVID-19. His father was hampered planning the funeral because he does not have a license, he added.
Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, which represents hundreds of faith communities from across the state, said an expedited implementation is necessary. She also urged the agency to start a public awareness campaign to prevent misinformation.
"This legislation is more than a piece of legislation that gives someone a license, this is a step forward for racial justice," she said. "Black and brown people, undocumented people across this state, unfortunately, have been hit the hardest through COVID and continue to suffer over and over again due to unjust laws and unequal opportunities."
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.