A rally in support of allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses at the state Capitol on April 26, 2023. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror
Miah Gomez grew up dreading car rides. The 18-year-old’s parents, who have lived in Arizona for decades, are undocumented and getting behind the wheel without a license is an ever present risk.
“It’s always scary just stepping out of the house, let alone driving on the roads,” she said.
Arizona is home to more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants, but most of them are unable to obtain a driver’s license. Since 1996, state law has barred them from earning the legal right to drive unless they can prove their presence in the country is federally authorized, such as under the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But the program’s narrow eligibility requirements and frozen application status isn’t helpful for the vast majority of Arizona immigrants.
Instead, community advocates are hoping for change at the state level, and one lawmaker is adamant about delivering that change. Rep. Lydia Hernandez is the sponsor of House Bill 2604, which would remove the proof of citizenship requirement from driver’s license applications. The Phoenix Democrat has been pushing similar legislation since 2013, and was a part of the effort that resulted in the first iteration in 1997. Much like past attempts, however, this year’s version has yet to gain any traction in a Republican-controlled legislature.
But Hernandez hasn’t given up. There’s still time, she said, to make a late introduction via a last-minute amendment, or pitch it to Gov. Katie Hobbs for inclusion in the state budget. Hernandez has been courting Republican support, though she told the Arizona Mirror that conservative lawmakers have expressed hesitancy about the optics of backing a pro-immigrant bill when the party has built its brand on uncompromising border policies.
It’s frustrating, she said, that even with a record number of Latinos at the Capitol, very little has been accomplished in the way of helping Arizona’s diverse immigrant communities. Still, Hernandez said she is prepared to predicate her support for the state budget on the measure’s success, and recruit others to join her.
“I’m not going to vote for a budget that doesn’t include driver’s licenses,” she said, adding “there’s a few of us” who will band together.
For Rep. Flavio Bravo, D-Phoenix, who co-sponsored the bill, its protections are long overdue. One in six Arizona workers is an immigrant, and holding down a job in a state with insufficient public transit necessitates driving. And with ongoing labor shortages, Arizona can’t afford to jeopardize any part of its workforce.
State law has lagged behind supporting the much-needed resource that immigrants represent, Bravo said. While some progress has been made, particularly in last year’s passage of Prop. 308 which gives undocumented students the same access to in-state tuition as their classmates, systemic hindrances still exist. Undocumented Arizonans hoping to earn a living in the state can get an education, but they’re prevented from driving legally — and in many cases, the licenses they need to work in their chosen career is dependent on their citizenship status. Lawyers, for example, must prove their lawful status to practice.
“They’re graduating, they’re entering the workforce. With Prop. 308, now they can go to college. But what happens if they don’t go to college? Or when they graduate four years from now?” Bravo asked.
The freshman lawmaker introduced House Bill 2796, removing the citizenship requirement from occupational licenses to remedy the issue, but it, too, has so far been ignored by the Republican majority.
Reyna Montoya, founder of immigrant advocacy group Aliento and a DACA recipient, said driver’s licenses don’t just benefit immigrants, but also Arizona as a whole. Acquiring a license only comes after both a written and practical test have determined the person’s ability to drive.
“I want to have a state where I have the guarantee that the people who are driving have passed the driving test,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to have someone driving who doesn’t have the skills to drive.”
Helping move undocumented drivers out of the shadows would also go a long way toward repairing their relationship with law enforcement, which is still fractured after the mistrust engendered by SB1070, the “show me your papers” law that resulted in traffic stops fueled by racial profiling. Reporting and remaining at the scene when accidents happen would be less intimidating if drivers don’t have to fear being criminalized or, at best, having their cars impounded, Montoya said.
The top criticism from detractors of the proposal is that allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses will lead to voter fraud. But that ignores that registering to vote requires including a verifiable proof of citizenship. While the application for a driver’s license includes the option to register, it’s a crime for non-citizens to do so — a fact undocumented people are keenly aware of.
“We know our standing and we know that it’s a felony if you lie and say you’re a U.S. citizen,” Montoya said. “Trust me, none of us are going to be registering to vote, because we know that there are real consequences.”
In the end, undocumented Arizonans are going to continue to drive, it’s simply a matter of deciding what safeguards are in place to protect everyone.
“People are going to continue to drive because there’s no other alternatives,” Montoya said. “So, do we want to do it safely, where people actually pass a driver’s license test or do we want people to be driving without it?”
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