Immigration is a divisive topic. People passionately debate the pros and cons of immigration reform. Often, these debates are based more on fear and rhetoric than facts. While many denounce illegal immigration publicly, privately they benefit from the additional tax revenue, expansion of a lower cost labor pool, and the increase of money in circulation generated by undocumented immigrants.
The United States is a motor-vehicle dependent country. In our sprawling state, driving is not a luxury, it is a necessity. With inadequate public transportation, undocumented Floridians must drive to get to work, school, doctors, hospitals, churches, banks, grocery stores, post offices, or visit a friend. Since basic survivability depends on the ability to get around, undocumented Floridians are going to drive — with or without a license.
Florida law requires that immigration status be considered in determining eligibility to obtain a license. There are approximately 16 million licensed drivers in Florida. Over two million Florida motorists drive without a license, irrespective of immigration status. In Florida, approximately one-fifth of fatal car crashes involves an unlicensed driver.
Anti-immigration groups opposing the grant of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants argue that these encourage illegal immigration and will not increase road safety. These groups believe that restrictive state policies denying driver’s licenses will reduce the number of undocumented immigrants. Nothing could be further from the truth. The possibility of a driver’s license does not inspire undocumented immigrants to risk their lives crossing oceans, rivers, mountains, or deserts. Immigrants cross our borders for countless reasons. For every undocumented immigrant who reaches our shores, there is a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident waiting to employ them. This labor pool represents a financial boom to society.
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Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented Floridians allows them to live openly and accountably in society. Their increased legal responsibility improves public safety and enhances our communities in several ways, including:
▪ Requiring undocumented drivers to take written and driving tests, testing their skills, knowledge of Florida’s driving laws, and rules of the road;
▪ Requiring undocumented drivers to obtain mandatory car insurance, increasing the number of insured drivers, and reducing uninsured motorists claims;
▪ Reducing the number of drivers leaving the scene of an accident because they do not have a license;
▪ Allowing Florida to better identify individuals already here and maintain more accurate records by creating a detailed license and motor-vehicle record for each newly licensed driver containing their name, address, date of birth, photographs, driving history, etc.;
▪ Providing law enforcement with access to information in Florida’s databases to accurately identify motorists during traffic stops, verify current address, car registration, traffic records, open warrants, violators, fatalities, and relatives;
▪ Affording healthcare professionals better identification of victims, patients, and next of kin in the event of accidents or death;
▪ Redirecting limited local law enforcement budgets to essential priorities and not immigration enforcement;
▪ Freeing up police, judicial, and prison resources to focus on serious crimes instead of arrests for driving without a license; and
▪ Increasing the number of licensed drivers reduces the number of accidents, and saves lives.
Our economy is, likewise, enhanced by granting driver’s licenses to undocumented Floridians. For example:
▪ Drivers pay fees to obtain and renew a driver’s license, register their cars, and renew tags. These fees generate a new and continuing revenue stream for Florida;
▪ New jobs will be created to handle the additional workload;
▪ The requirement to obtain car insurance boosts profits for automobile insurance companies;
▪ Reducing the number of uninsured motorists results in lower insurance premiums for Floridians by adding more drivers to the risk pool;
▪ Newly licensed drivers can more easily purchase a car at local dealerships increasing car sales, payment of sales tax, and fees;
▪ Increased car sales result in increased revenue for the automobile repair, parts, and accessories industries; and
▪ The ability to legally drive gives undocumented immigrants the opportunity to leave the confines of their immediate environment, and benefit local businesses by expanding the scope of their ability to spend money beyond home or workplace. They can rent better housing, shop at more competitively priced stores or markets--activities that would otherwise have required use of public transportation, walking, or ride-sharing.
▪ A community’s success depends on all of its residents. Integrating Florida’s undocumented immigrants into their communities enhances their ability to contribute to the economic and social health of the state and its localities. With the benefits outweighing the negatives, a change is warranted.
Rebeca Sánchez-Roig is managing partner, Sánchez-Roig & Solow. She is a former deputy chief counsel who spent 17 years as a federal proscutor with the U.s. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.