Minnesota House passes bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented residents

By: - January 30, 2023 8:37 pm

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, introduces HF4 on the House Floor Jan. 30, 2023. Photo by Catherine Davis/Minnesota House Information.

Minnesota House lawmakers passed a bill 69-60 to give driver’s licenses to undocumented residents on Monday after a decade of advocacy from immigrant rights groups. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

“We are filled with hope that we can once again drive without fear,” said leader of the Minnesota Immigrant Movement Jovita Morales during a press conference ahead of the House floor vote.

Before former governor Tim Pawlenty unilaterally barred undocumented residents from obtaining driver’s licenses in 2003, driver’s licenses were available to people living in Minnesota without legal authorization. Bills to reverse Pawlenty’s decision have floated through the Legislature since 2005, but the new DFL trifecta has brought life to the movement again — despite the bill stalling the last time DFL politicians were in control.

In committee hearings leading up to the House floor vote, lawmakers heard an outpouring of emotional stories from immigrants and their family members about how the bill, HF 4, would impact more than just the estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants who live in Minnesota.

“If you lost one driver’s license in your family, what would that impact be?” said John Pacheco, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota.

Kay Carvajal Moran of the Minnesota Immigrant Movement recalled watching her mother recite the Lord’s prayer behind the wheel every time she saw a police car.

Sarah Silva of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee said she danced in the parking lot when she obtained a driver’s license because of the newfound freedom her family was afforded.

While the effort to bring driver’s licenses to undocumented residents has bipartisan support, Republicans say they’re concerned undocumented residents could use driver’s licenses to vote.

DFL legislators say there are safeguards in place to prevent non-citizens from registering to vote. They also point out that many residents with legal immigration statuses already have driver’s licenses.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a letter to the Minnesota Senate that the proposal would not impact voting or voter registration systems.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, offered an amendment that would mark driver’s licenses for undocumented residents with “not for voting,” suggesting that it would protect undocumented residents who aren’t aware they can’t vote from being deported by accident.

“This isn’t about trying to profile or shame anybody, because you know, it’s about protecting them, too,” said Baker.

Baker’s amendment — as well as several other Republican amendments to differentiate an undocumented resident’s license from a U.S. citizen’s in various ways — did not pass.

“There is no reason for this to be a second-class license,” said chief author of the bill Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis.

The bill is supported by a broad coalition of interest groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and law enforcement officials, who said giving driver’s licenses to undocumented residents would make their jobs easier and keep uninsured drivers off the road.

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. Eighteen states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico issue driver’s licenses or similar documents that offer driving privileges to undocumented people.

The bill establishes an implementation date of October 2023 and allocates $1.45 million to Driver and Vehicle Services for the next two years.

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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.