Immigration Law

Deciding Who Drives: State Choices Surrounding Unauthorized Immigrants and Driver Licenses

"U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants can routinely obtain and renew driver’s licenses, but some states have decided to allow unauthorized immigrants—those who do not have explicit permission from the U.S. government to reside in the country—to do so as well. As of the summer of 2015, 10 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia issue driver’s licenses, or similar documents referred to by different names, to this population, and nearly 37 percent of unauthorized immigrants live in a jurisdiction where they may obtain a license.

Regulation of driver’s licenses is a state-level function, and state legislative activity around this question has increased in recent years. In 2013 alone, eight states and the District of Columbia passed laws making unauthorized immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses (one was later repealed). In 2015, Delaware and Hawaii enacted similar laws. As of this report’s publication, neither state had begun issuing licenses.

Debates over whether and how to license unauthorized immigrants are ongoing in many statehouses. In the coming years, more states are likely to consider whether to allow them access to driver’s licenses, while some that have such laws may contemplate changing or repealing them.

States consider legislation regarding these immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses in the context of the federal REAL ID Act, the 2005 law that created national standards for state driver’s licenses that can be used for federal identification. This law expressly authorizes states to provide licenses to unauthorized immigrants, but only if the licenses are distinct from regular ones in specific ways. State decisions also are likely to be affected by the federal executive actions announced in November 2014 that, if fully implemented, could allow millions of unauthorized immigrants who meet certain conditions to acquire the documents needed to apply for regular driver’s licenses under existing state laws.

This report highlights the decisions and experiences of policymakers and issuing agencies in 11 jurisdictions that issue driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Looking at their collective experiences shows the variety of approaches that states have taken and the issues they have confronted. These insights provide state legislators and other state policymakers with information to consider as they weigh their own choices." - Pew Charitable Trusts, Aug. 2015.