Give driver’s licenses to Minnesota’s undocumented residents, advocates say

By: - January 3, 2023 7:43 pm

Sen. Zaynab Mohamed at a “Driver’s Licenses for All” press conference. Photo by Grace Deng/Minnesota Reformer

Newly energized by the Democratic trifecta, a coalition named “Driver’s Licenses for All 2023” called on state lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation allowing undocumented Minnesotans to obtain driver’s licenses.

“Immigrant parents cannot take their children to recreational and educational activities, and the result is that our youth are being left behind,” said Jovita Morales, founder of Minnesota Immigrant Movement, at a rally on the opening day of the Legislature. “It is not our children’s fault that these laws are causing inequitable access to opportunities for the future. It is unfair.”

As of 2019, the state is home to an estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Center. Advocates say issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants makes roads safer: Studies show hit-and-runs and uninsured drivers decreased in states that allow undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses. 

The idea has some bipartisan support, including from law enforcement officers who don’t want unlicensed drivers on the road. 

Chants of si se puede — the labor and immigrant rights mantra roughly translated to “yes we can” — could be heard across the Capitol hallway in between speeches from union leaders, immigrant rights organizations, Gov. Tim Walz, Archbishop Bernard Hebda and sponsors of the bill in both chambers. Walz called the current law “a cruel policy that did nothing good.”

“Our employers need workers. We know that this community works,” Walz said. “Why would we make it more difficult for them to get there safely? Why would we hold back our economy?”

Outside, people with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee braved the winter storm to rally for the bill. Speakers lambasted Democrats, however, for inaction on immigration and workers’ rights, including driver’s licenses. 

“Now is the time that we should be demanding more, not less. We have already seen in the newspaper and on the radio: Democrats hedging their bets about what we can do. But the power of the people is unstoppable,” said David Gilbert-Pederson, a member of MN Workers United.

Senate President Bobby Jo Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored a driver’s license bill that passed the upper chamber a decade ago but failed in the House, urged patience in a recent Star Tribune story. He was castigated for it. 

Various bills approving driver’s licenses for undocumented Minnesotans have circulated in the Legislature for over a decade, but DFL House and Senate majorities offer new hope the bill might pass. 

Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, a first-term lawmaker who is the chief author of the Senate legislation, said the bill “is a top priority for me as an immigrant, a top priority for our immigrant communities across the board, and it is a top priority for all Minnesotans.”

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, is co-sponsoring the bill in the House with Rep. Maria Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul. Gomez said the legislation is also a top priority in the lower chamber.

Eighteen states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico issue driver’s licenses or similar documents that offer driving privileges to undocumented people. Until 2003, Minnesota allowed any state resident, regardless of immigration status, to obtain a driver’s license. 

“During the pandemic, they called us essential workers,” said Carpenters Local 68 union member Daniel Del Toro, who was reading the remarks of fellow union member Josue Maldonado. “But we know we have always been essential to our families.”

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng was a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. They studied legal studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. The Seattle native has previously been a statehouse intern with USA TODAY Network Ohio and an editorial fellow with Washingtonian Magazine.