Many Undocumented Immigrants Drive Without Valid NY Licenses

By Alex Goetzfried

About 625,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York State, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. And because New York requires a Social Security number to get a driver’s license, most of these immigrants who drive are doing so with an out-of-state license – or no license at all.

As of now, in 10 states, an undocumented immigrant can get a license using a tax identification number, a passport and proof of residence (such as a utility bill, lease or cable television bill), or some combination of those three.  Not so in New York, although it’s regarded as progressive on immigration issues. This leads many undocumented immigrants to go to Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington or six other states to get a driver’s license and return to New York, where they live and use it.

This is illegal.

“Article 2 of the Constitution, the commerce clause, allows you to move between states; however if you reside in a state where the license is not issued for over 90 days you, by law, have to change to the state you live in,” said Brian DeSesa, an attorney in Sag Harbor who deals with traffic violations. “By going to a different state, getting a license and returning to the state you live it’s illegal. If you work in New York, and live in New York, you have to convert that to a New York license.”

Javier Navarro moved to New York 23 years ago from Mexico City. While he is a United States citizen, many of his friends and extended family are not. Navarro said many undocumented immigrants have to use a friend’s name to insure his or her car. Vehicles must be insured in order to be registered.

“A lot of people have an accident and they run away because they don’t have a license and a friend got the insurance for them,” Navarro said. They would stay at the scene of the accident, he said, if the government gave them a license. “If you give a license to these people, they’ll pay taxes, pay insurance, it will be more money for the city, but government doesn’t think like that,” he said.

In the outer boroughs of New York City and on Long Island, many undocumented immigrants need a driver’s license to get a job. Many of the undocumented immigrants outside of Manhattan are landscapers, painters, construction workers and day laborers. These jobs require that they be able to drive work trucks to different job sites throughout the day.

Driving without proper insurance also causes problems. When an uninsured or illegally insured vehicle gets into an accident with a legally insured driver, the legally insured driver’s insurance must cover the damages, in some cases causing that person’s premium to go up. That is because New York is a no-fault state; insurance companies are required to cover damages regardless of who caused the accident. The legal driver’s insurer must cover the expenses of the accident, even if the legal driver was not at fault.

Part of the resistance to making it easier for immigrants to obtain licenses is that ticketing generates revenue for government.  A driver caught operating a vehicle without a license can be fined $75 to $300, imprisoned to 15 days or both.

Determining how many tickets are issued by the state and how much revenue that generates is nearly impossible though. “It’s one of those types of questions that comes up a lot, unfortunately it’s hard to get that kind of data from the state,” said John Bowman, communications director at the National Motorists Association. “We wish that the states and local authorities would do a better job of reporting this kind of data, because it goes towards transparency of what is a basic law enforcement function.”

Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute agreed. “There’s probably little data because it’s all anecdotal; if you’re not a licensed driver it causes a problem,” Barry said.

In 2007 driver’s license reform was a big part of the overall immigration reform issue in New York. Governor Eliot Spitzer pushed to allow undocumented immigrants to receive licenses – once as an executive order, then as a legislative bill, and once through the Department of Motor Vehicles. But he withdrew the executive order, and the other two attempts were defeated by intense political opposition. The issue has not been a priority ofstate officials since.

California is now in the process of passing measures to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses and other benefits. The other nine states that have relaxed the regulations for obtaining a driver’s license are Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Colorado.