On Thursday, the Connecticut state Senate voted to approve a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license. The bill passed by the House 74-55 and the Senate 19-16, without a single Republican vote in either chamber. Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy is in support of the bill and intends to sign it. 54,000 undocumented immigrants will become eligible for a license when the law takes effect on January 1, 2015.
The licenses will be clearly marked "for driving purposes only" and would therefore not confer any of the other privileges associated with driving licenses. This would create a two-tiered licensing system, similar to those implemented in states that have already passed such legislation.
Connecticut is only the latest in a number of states that have passed such legislation in recent weeks, joining Colorado, Maryland, and Oregon. Several other states, such as New Mexico, Illinois, and Washington have already granted driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Similar measures are currently being considered in Rhode Island, California, and Washington D.C.
Proponents of the legislation stress that the bill is about public safety, citing benefits that would come from having more registered and insured cars manned by safe drivers. They shy away from characterization of the bill as an expansion of immigrant rights, in somewhat futile hopes of avoiding the controversy associated with undocumented immigrants.
This bill would allow immigrants to safely go to work, drive their children to school, and generally integrate into American society, while also generating millions in revenue for the state. Governor Malloy said in defense of the bill, "This bill is first and foremost about public safety. It's about knowing who is driving on our roads, and doing everything we can to make sure those drivers are safe and that they're operating registered, insured vehicles."
Those staunchly opposed to license reform also emphasize public safety, but from a different angle. Senator Toni Boucher pointed to the ease with which convicted felons could obtain a driver's license under the new law. They point out that a driver's license is a federal document that is accepted for many other purposes besides driving, such as gaining access to federal buildings or boarding planes. Loosening license restrictions could cause a security risk.
Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico, has continually spoken out against such legislation in her state, which was passed in 2003. Martinez argues that the legislation is dangerous because it is abused by drug cartel/gang members, criminals, and immigrants from other states, who come to New Mexico to obtain driver's licenses. State Representative David Scribner voiced fears that the same phenomenon would happen to Connecticut as the only east coast state to have such a program, thus burdening the state government with increased workload and costs.
The wave of legislation enacted by states in the absence of immigration reform underscores the need for federal action. In recent years, states have been taking matters into their own hands, resulting in controversial laws such as Arizona's SB 1070 that call into question the blurry line between state and federal authority. In this case, driver's licenses are firmly under state jurisdiction, but the complications presented by implementation of a two-tier licensing system in some states and the possibility for interstate fraud suggests that a federal solution is not only wise but indeed essential.
In a statement, Governor Malloy called for federal action, stating that "It should also be noted that, like many issues, action on the federal level would address this problem in an even more comprehensive and sensible way. I continue to support those broader efforts at national reform, and urge Congress to follow the example being set by Connecticut and other states." In the months to come, however, similar legislation will be debated in more states, placing more pressure on an immigration bill to pass in Congress.