NJ to expand driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants May 1. Here's how it will work
The moment the New Jersey state assembly passes the undocumented immigrant driver license bill on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. NorthJersey.com
Benito Torres knows too well the difficulties of everyday life in New Jersey without a driver's license.
An undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Millville, Torres has gotten several summonses over the years for driving without a license.
He needs to drive to get to the furniture warehouse where he works. And there are other hang-ups as well: A side job as an auto mechanic is harder because he has struggled to exchange tools at hardware stores without a license. Even buying a beer after a hard day's work is more complicated without a standard ID.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and since the first day I got here, I have wanted to have a driver’s license,’’ he said. He's in the process of legalizing his status, he said, but that may take months.
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But come May 1, Torres and hundreds of thousands of other New Jersey residents will be eligible to begin the process of obtaining a state driver's license, regardless of legal status or a lack of documentation.
The effort, however, has run into some of the same snags that bedeviled the early rollout of coronavirus vaccines, according to immigration advocates: confusion over where and how to get appointments and concerns that the online process will make it more difficult for less computer-savvy applicants.
Diana Mejia, a founder of Morristown's Wind of the Spirit, which works with local immigrants, said volunteers have found state Motor Vehicle Commission offices not always ready to help. "They get responses that included that they didn't know anything and that it wasn't a law," Mejia said. "The attitude of the employees at the [MVC] will be crucial in reassuring people who are going through the process of getting a license."
Driving schools in Paterson, Passaic and other cities with ethnic enclaves said they are fielding calls from immigrants hunting for information on how to get the licenses.
“Even before this we always had people inquiring if we could give them driver’s licenses without a learner's permit or with just their licenses from their country of origin, so I’m pretty sure business will increase,’’ said Johana Guzman, owner of Enterprise Driving School in Passaic, who plans to hire more instructors. “We are going to have more work once May comes.”
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The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2019 after a long debate in Trenton, allows for a standard driver’s license to be issued to immigrants regardless of legal status. It would also make licenses available to senior citizens, domestic violence survivors, former prisoners and homeless people who may lack documentation.
The state Motor Vehicle Commission will begin processing applications at the start of May, after delaying plans for a Jan. 1 rollout due to the pandemic.
The law will extend driving privileges to about 400,000 of New Jersey’s estimated 475,000 undocumented immigrants, the commission anticipates. New Jersey will join 15 other states and the District of Columbia in offering licenses to non-citizens regardless of legal status. The group includes New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and California.
Costs and benefits
The law has the potential to improve public safety and generate new revenue for the state economy, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
In a 2019 study, the group projected that the expansion of driver’s licenses will generate $21 million in revenue from permit, title and driver’s license fees during the first three years of implementation. New Jersey can expect an additional $90 million from registration fees, gas taxes and sales taxes on motor vehicles and auto parts, they predicted. The study did not estimate the costs of implementation.
A fiscal analysis of the driver's licenses bill by the stateOffice of Legislative Services said it could not estimate either costs or potential revenues, but said the law would likely net a revenue increase for the state in part due to the significant interest in acquiring new licenses.
William Connolly, a Motor Vehicle Commission spokesman, said the agency expects fees collected for the new licenses to defray additional expenses. "No one has an accurate forecast of how many new drivers will apply and when, but we expect the revenue to pay for the cost of issuing the licenses,'' he said.
Those who oppose the law have said it prioritizes immigrants without legal status above everyone else.
Among the critics is Greg Schraer, owner of the Paramus Driving School, who said he doesn’t think people who can’t speak English should be given licenses because road signs are in English.
“We need to have a system that gives people the right to become citizens and the right to be here legally, but I don’t think we should be making any allowances for people who are here illegally’’ he said. “I don’t even teach people who only speak Spanish, because I feel very strongly that you need to know the language to drive.”
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Some have pointed to the potential for fraud in obtaining the licenses. Some states, like Maryland, that made driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants a few years ago found that hundred of licenses were issued to applicants who submitted counterfeit documentation.
But the MVC's Connolly said the agency has precautions in place to identify fraudulent paperwork.He added that employees are being trained on the new document requirements ahead of the May 1 start date.
How to get new licenses
Those interested in applying for the basic driver’s license under the law in the Garden State will be able to make appointments online for their initial permits starting May 1, Connolly said.
Applicants must provide six points' worth of documents that prove identity and New Jersey residency. Customers who do not have a Social Security number will be able to provide an Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN) instead. Starting June 1, individuals who do not have either of those two identifiers can provide an affidavit to meet the requirement. Affidavits may be notarized or signed in front of an MVC employee, Connolly said.
After that, applicants must meet the same criteria as other residents seeking a first driver’s license, including passing a written and vision test to get a valid permit. They must then have three months of supervised driving before they can take the road test.
“New drivers must demonstrate they know the rules of the road and can safely operate a vehicle, a process which takes time,’’ Connolly said in an email.
After the road test, drivers get a probationary license for a year allowing them to operate a vehicle unsupervised with certain restrictions. The probationary license can be upgraded to a basic driver's license after a year.
Some undocumented immigrants, who may have a driver’s license from their home country, would still need to purchase a permit and take a written test, but the road test may be waived, according to Connolly. He said the foreign driver’s license could be used as proof of driving experience in some cases.
Guzman, the Passaic instructor,said she wishes she could do more for the immigrants who call her seeking information and have had trouble connecting with state offices for help.
"We can only take care of the driving lessons,'' she said. "I hope the MVC will be able to help them more."
Last month the commission announced that it had overhauled its "First Driver License/ID" webpage to make it easier for people to start the process. The page includes frequently asked questions and a video guide. All of the information is now available in English and Spanish.
Torres, the Millville warehouse worker, said he has grown frustrated when asked to present a driver's license during the most mundane of errands. One day he went to a neighborhood liquor store to buy some Corona beer and the cashier asked for proof of his age. Without a license, he couldn’t buy the beer, and he never returned to the store.
“I’ll never forget, I was so upset. They had never asked me for ID before,’’ he said.
Maria Estrada, 38, who emigrated from Guatemala in 2011, said she's getting her documents ready so she can apply for the license as soon as possible. The Princeton woman looks forward to taking her children to school and going to her housecleaning job in her own car.
"I feel good because now we will be able to transport ourselves to work and not pay for a taxi or other ride,'' said Estrada, a member of Unidad Latina en Accion New Jersey, a Mercer County-based group that helps immigrants.
More information is available at: nj.gov/mvc/license/initiallicense.htm
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.