BOISE – Several states around Idaho allow immigrants who are living in the country illegally to obtain a driver’s license, and a recent state legislative report explores what impact that makes.
The Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations released the report Friday to the lawmakers and the public, at the request of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. Idaho lawmakers explored the idea last year, but did not move a bill forward.
Nevada, Utah and Washington offer driving credentials to immigrants without documentation of legal permanent residence. Oregon is slated to offer the credentials this year.
The report found a 2020 study indicating employment among immigrants without legal permanent residency increased by 1% when they had driving authorization.
“Employment effects are more pronounced in rural communities where employment increases by 2.4%,” the report said.
Other studies show immigrants increased their weekly work hours after they received driving privileges, according to the report.
The report also found that licensing unauthorized immigrants may reduce the severity of accidents in which they are involved. Getting a license requires drivers to prove they know the rules of the road and how to operate a vehicle safely.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and AAA shows accidents involving unlicensed drivers are three times deadlier than accidents involving licensed drivers, the report said.
According to Idaho Transportation Department data from 2015 to 2019, 1% of accidents involving an unlicensed driver ended in a fatality, compared with 0.4% of all accidents that ended in a fatality.
“Additionally, two states have experienced a reduction in hit-and-run accidents after giving unauthorized immigrants driving authorization,” the report said.
Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, who has been in discussions about licensing drivers without legal permanent residency, said it is a common-sense approach to trying to address the issue of unlicensed drivers working in agriculture and service industries.
The report said there are an estimated 37,000 immigrants without legal permanent residency living in Idaho, according to the Center for Migration Studies of New York, and around 80% of them are employed but unable to obtain a driver’s license.
“Our perspective is these individuals are on the road already, driving without licenses – that is not a surprise to anyone who has looked into this,” Naerebout said. “With individuals on the road without licenses, it makes sense to us to have a process where they can go through the testing and be aware of the rules of the road and precautions.”
No legislation plans
No legislation on this topic has been proposed this session. Last year, lawmakers discussed allowing immigrants without legal permanent residency to obtain driver’s licenses with limited privileges, though Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, ultimately decided not to introduce a bill.
Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said he has visited with another legislator about a driver’s license bill this session, but does not have plans to introduce legislation. Ruchti, an attorney, said it’s important to talk with other legislators and bring in experts and stakeholders to explain why the legislation would be useful.
With legislation like this, “time is your friend,” he said.
Ruchti sees a driver’s license bill being useful to the agricultural, manufacturing and service industries in Idaho, which employ a large percentage of immigrants who are not U.S. citizens. Without driving authority, employers must come up with transportation for immigrant workers. Immigrants without legal permanent residency who drive without a license also risk arrest and deportation, putting a strain on their families, employers and the local criminal justice system, Ruchti said.
Allowing Idahoans without legal permanent residency to obtain driver’s licenses would greatly impact the agricultural industry, where 40% of immigrants work in Idaho, according to the report.
Ruchti, who sits on the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, said farmers are unable to use unlicensed workers to drive machinery in the fields, or they are liable if a worker is caught driving without a license.
Farmers often employ immigrant workers legally through the H-2A work visa program, and other employers can use other work visa programs. These workers are still unable to obtain driver’s licenses in Idaho.
Program design options
According to the report, the states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants follow one of two program designs. One option is to issue a non-Real ID compliant driver’s license that would be issued like a standard driver’s license but could not be used for federal purposes. The other option is to issue a standalone driving credential to immigrants, which would allow lawmakers to set the program requirements.
The Office of Performance Evaluations did not recommend either option but found that neither would incur significant costs to the state and would bring in additional revenue through license fees.
Utah and Nevada have standalone driving credentials. Lawmakers in those states set characteristics such as eligibility requirements, expiration dates and application fees.
Federal data sharing
If driving authorization was a granted to immigrants without legal permanent residency from the Idaho Legislature, it may run into some difficulties around federal data sharing. The federal government is allowed access to driver’s license data, though individual states can place some limits on what data the government can obtain.
In Utah, federal immigration authorities are allowed to search Department of Motor Vehicle Records with a subpoena or case number, the legislative report said. Immigration advocates in Utah say immigrants have been targeted for deportation after they renewed their driving authorization cards.
With a new Biden administration pushing for major immigration reforms, Ruchti said changes on the federal level around how much Immigration and Customs Enforcement can use local DMV data may be beneficial to the potential legislation in Idaho. Otherwise, he said it would be hard to navigate.
“After coming off an administration that focused much of its policy on unauthorized immigrants, we shouldn’t think it would be easy, but it is good legislation,” Ruchti said.
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