Immigration

Here’s what Florida could gain by granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants

Maria Bilbao is a former domestic worker turned immigration activist from Argentina. Back when she was undocumented, she found herself driving without a license for nine years. In Florida, that’s a second-degree misdemeanor.

During that stretch of time, Bilbao’s car was hit twice. Both times, she let the driver who had hit her off the hook, to avoid involving the authorities.

“There was a lot of fear that driving would lead to detention, and that the life you worked so hard to build for yourself here would be gone just like that,” Bilbao said. “But at the same time, relying on public transportation was impossible.”

The fear Bilbao felt when she was behind the wheel was well-founded. Driving without a license is among the traffic offenses that, for undocumented immigrants, can escalate into detention or deportation — and there’s indications that such kind of immigration enforcement is on the rise in Florida.

“I know of some Argentine people who had a small accident, the police was called, and they ended up detained for seven months, then deported,” she said. “They had children who were American citizens. It doesn’t make sense.”

From personal experience, people like Bilbao understand how being able to get driver’s licenses could help Florida’s undocumented immigrant population, which numbers around 750,000. Now, a new report from the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute (FPI) lays out that, were the state to expand license eligibility, everyone else might benefit too.

According to the report made public on Tuesday, granting driver’s licenses to all Floridians would result in a significant boost to state revenue — to the tune of an estimated $68.6 million within the first three years of implementation — as well as improve public safety by curtailing accidents and hit-and-runs.

“Opening up access to driver’s licenses for all Floridians and tapping into this new stream of revenue makes sense for our state, particularly in the face of the Sunshine State’s impending revenue shortfall,” said Sadaf Knight, CEO of FPI. “This inclusive policy would also make our roads safer and provide immigrants who are undocumented the chance to better support their families and continue contributing to the state and local economy.“

At the moment, 14 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have already advanced policies allowing driver’s licenses for all, regardless of immigration status.

A POTENTIALLY SIZABLE REVENUE WINDFALL

According to the FPI report, implementing driver’s licenses for all would generate approximately $68.6 million in state revenue within the first three years, a sum that would come from the payment of license fees, as well as from the fees and taxes associated with the purchase of vehicles.

To arrive at the $68.6 million figure, FPI estimates that half of the estimated 685,000 driving-age immigrants who are undocumented in Florida would actually pursue obtaining a license within the first three years of the policy’s creation. That’s based on an analysis of the take-up rates of driver’s licenses in the states that already grant licenses to all its residents.

Having 342,500 undocumented immigrants pay the license fee for new Florida drivers would generate some $16.4 million for the state, according to the study. The remaining $52.2 million would come from the wide array of taxes and fees that the state levies when a driver purchases and registers vehicles. Again, based on the experience other states have had expanding license eligibility, FPI expects around 86,000 new vehicles to be purchased, registered, and titled within three years of a license-for-all policy being implemented. Money raised from the aforementioned fees helps support the Florida Department of Transportation and related infrastructure projects.

An additional fiscal boon not taken into account in the $68.6 million figure: the possibility that access to licenses could help immigrants secure higher-paying jobs, increasing the undocumented community’s contributions in local and state taxes each year.

“We know from research and from other states that have implemented this that, generally, if you have a personal vehicle you don’t have to rely as much on public transportation and maybe you can commute a little further for a better job that pays you more,” said Alexis Davis, FPI policy analyst and report author. “And if you earn more you spend more. And it’s all going to feed back into the economy.”

MAKING THE ROADS SAFER

Completing the process of getting a license means taking a driving test, learning common traffic rules and signs, and submitting to a vision and hearing screen. Lacking such training and testing, unlicensed drivers in Florida are more dangerous than licensed drivers, and even those driving with suspended licenses, according to the FPI report.

A correlation between expanded license access and road safety has emerged in many of the states that already allow undocumented immigrants to lawfully drive, with uninsured rates, alcohol-involved crashes and fatal crashes dropping after the law changed.

In California, after more than one million undocumented immigrants were granted driver’s licenses, hit-and-runs decreased by 10 percent, “suggesting that the policy reduced fears of deportation and vehicle impoundment,” according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. After Connecticut expanded its license access, hit-and-runs in certain cities there went down by 15 percent according to official data — leading to millions of dollars saved in related expenses.

A more inclusive license policy also could lead to a higher percentage of drivers on the road being insured. In New Mexico, data from the state’s DMV suggests the uninsured rate dropped from 33 percent in 2002 to 9.1 percent in 2011, coinciding with a change in law that expanded license access.

CONFIDENTIALITY CONCERNS

While other states’ experiences granting licenses to undocumented immigrants illustrate the public safety benefits that can come about, they also show how the policy can compromise immigrants’ privacy, letting U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies gain access to identifying information.

In July, it was uncovered that, in at least three states that offer licenses to undocumented immigrants, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials used facial recognition technology to comb through state databases of license photos, mining millions of photos without motorists’ knowledge or consent.

Collaboration between ICE and state DMVs can take other forms as well, with immigration authorities simply putting in requests for confidential information.

In Washington state — despite significant opposition to President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement agenda — the Department of Licensing turned over undocumented immigrants’ driver’s license applications to ICE officials, a practice that led to arrests and deportations. And in Vermont, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles was found to have forwarded names, photos, car registrations and other information on migrant workers to ICE.

“In Washington, ICE was basically just saying, ‘Hey, we want this,’ and they just handed it over no questions asked,” said Davis. “So they had to mobilize and make changes.”

The changes made to curtail the free flowing of information included requesting ICE to produce judicial warrants when seeking information on motorists. In addition, a case-by-case review is now mandated for law enforcement requests for photos, applications, vehicle titles, and other documents. Those are all steps Davis said Florida could also put in place to safeguard privacy.

“What I understand is that Florida is like Washington was. When someone requests information from them they are gonna share it. There’s nothing prohibiting them from doing that,” she said. “So for advocates and legislators and people who are getting ready to push this, [it’s an issue] that’s high on everyone’s radar.”

THE FUTURE OF LICENSES FOR ALL IN FLORIDA

Republican state Sen. David Simmons, president pro tempore of the Florida Senate and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he intends to file legislation in the 2020 Legislative Session that would allow undocumented residents to get access to driver’s licenses. A Democratic-sponsored bill with a similar aim died in committee shortly after it was filed in the spring.

Said Davis, the author of the FPI study: “[Undocumented immigrants] are people who are already here contributing to our state. They are our neighbors, and our friends. We know it’s the right thing to do to let them fully participate in our economy and drive without fear.” She added: “But recognizing that they’ll have to make that decision individually, we can do things to protect confidentiality. But it’s, of course, not a guarantee. So they’ll have to calculate that risk.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.
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