Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants: Flagler Sheriff Says Yes, But Local Opinion Is Divided
FlaglerLive | February 26, 2016
Speaking to a large group of Flagler County candidates for local elections and business leaders Thursday, Marian Johnson, the senior vice president of political strategy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, had a surprise: immigration is among the four issues Florida voters cite as their top concerns. Johnson told candidates they should not just be aware of the fact, but be conversant with it and address it on the trail, even in local races.
Immigration is a broad issue, often spoken of more in abstract or general terms than in specifics that tangibly affect local communities. One of those specifics is the question of driver’s licenses: should undocumented immigrants have a right to get them, or not. At the start of 2016 two more states, Delaware and Hawaii, saw recently-passed laws go into effect that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain legal driver’s licenses.
These documents don’t confer any legal residency status on the immigrants, but serve many purposes, allowing them to have much more freedom and opportunity in searching for employment, providing much greater safety on the roads since all applicants need to pass road safety tests like everyone else do, and serve as an important psychological milestone for adults desperate to be seen as “Americans” like so many native-born people are.
“There needs to be an acceptance factor that we have undocumented aliens in our state, and it would make sense that if they’re here, we should provide them the right to feel that they’re here,” said Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, who is strongly in favor of allowing immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, citing safety concerns as his primary reason. “We have a lot of people in Florida driving without a license; to get a license you have to have proper training and pass a test, so you’ll get better drivers.”
The trend toward licenses for immigrants has been picking up speed in the last several years, and the list of states that have passed laws allowing it rebuff any attempt at categorization.
There are small states (Delaware, Vermont) and large states (California, Illinois); red states (Utah, Nevada) and blue states (Maryland, Washington). Some have had Republican governors and a GOP-controlled legislature when the legislation was passed, others were heavily Democratic-controlled.
It would seem that the issue wouldn’t be so polarizing, as politicians on both sides of the aisle have shown support for this.
But in Florida there is scant evidence that the Sunshine State be joining the list of states passing legislation legalizing licenses for immigrants.
“It’s pretty much stalled right now, and has been for some time,” said Michelle Richardson, the director of public policy for the ACLU of Florida. “Things have actually been moving backward on this issue here, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much momentum, given all the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Presidential race, for anything to change.”
In Flagler County, opinion about the issue among local leaders is split. Manfre pointed out that it’s hard to recoup money in an accident from drivers without a registered vehicle or insurance, and agreed that allowing migrant workers who are undocumented to have licenses would widen their potential employment opportunities.
“A lot of migrants are abused in the job process, simply because they don’t have adequate transportation,” Manfre said. “They’re isolated in certain areas and it’s very difficult to to get a job outside of your very small area.”
Manfre’s support falls in line with law enforcement agencies in other states who have passed this law. According to several national experts interviewed, the backing of state police and sheriff’s agencies has been imperative in convincing legislators to enact driver’s license laws.
However, Manfre said that the Florida Sheriff’s Association had not come out in favor of issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants, and “I really don’t have optimism it’ll get passed anytime soon, in this political environment.”
Rebecca DeLorenzo, the president of the Flagler Chamber of Commerce, said her organization didn’t have an opinion one way or another on the matter, and that it had never come up in meetings.
There are plenty of local officials who oppose any legislation like this. Suzanne Johnston, the county tax collector whose office is in charge of issuing driver’s licenses, said she of course would follow any legislation the state passed, but believes that “if you’re in this country, you should have to be here legally to obtain a driver’s license.”
Mike McElroy is the President of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies of Flagler County, and has some strong feelings on the issue.“My top concern would be a safety issue, and how it might affect terrorism,” McElroy, a retired police officer, said. “You’re rewarding people who have not entered the country legally with the privilege of a driver’s license. I know a lot of states are moving toward this, but the Florida legislature has been conservative
As is often the case here, recent attempts to pass legislation on the issue has been complicated. In 2013, the Florida legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 235, which would’ve been a significant head start on this issue. HB 235 would have given the so-called “Dreamers” or DACA children (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the ability to apply for and receive a drivers license when they were of age.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and had only two “no” votes in the House. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill in June, 2013, saying “nothing would change” if the bill was passed.
Scott was partially correct but partially wrong. As it stands under federal law, “Dreamers” are allowed to apply for driver’s licenses once they receive work permits, which they are generally granted in most circumstances.
However, delays in work permits mean no drivers licenses for Dreamers, so HB 235 would’ve helped the Dreamers legally be allowed to get their licenses without having to wait for a permit.
That veto by Scott only applied to children of undocumented immigrants, which would be a far leap to allowing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants themselves.
FlaglerLive spoke with Gov. Scott deputy press secretary Lauren Schenone to ask about the Governor’s current stance on the issue. After first saying she’d be happy to get back to us with the Governor’s current position, repeated emails and phone calls went un-returned. Given that Scott vetoed a less-controversial bill three years ago, it’s hard to fathom he’d be in favor of a driver’s license for undocumented immigrants bill now, particularly after his recent publicly avowed support for Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination who’s made demonizing undocumented immigrants and Muslims a central plank of his platform.
But if other states who are just as conservative if not more conservative than Florida are passing these laws, how are they doing it? Jonathan Blazer is a national ACLU Advisory Counsel, and he’s studied this issue as much as anyone in recent years.
When he looks at states like Nevada, Utah and New Mexico, Blazer sees some common themes. For one, you need backing not just from usual suspects like law enforcement associations and immigration advocacy groups; you need some surprise help sometimes, too. In 2012 in Nevada, a Tea Party group endorsed granting immigrants drivers licenses, and when the state legislature finally passed the law in 2013, four Republicans voted for it, and it was signed by GOP Governor Brian Sandoval.
“You have to get legislators who are willing to break ranks, and look at this issue in a different way,” Blazer said. “Even in states like Illinois, which is a heavy Democratic state, you still needed Republicans to pass their bill (in 2013.)”
Framing the issue economically also is one way to sway legislators; in Nevada the cost of immigrants purchasing driver’s licenses (technically called driver authorization cards in that state) was expected to bring in $3.4 million over the first two years, compared to a $1.6 million cost. Suddenly, cash-poor states with millions of undocumented immigrants could see a bit of a windfall.
Another important factor in the success of these laws has been bringing coalitions together and seeking their input. In Hawaii in 2014, Blazer noted, key police organizations came out against this issue, feeling that the opportunity to commit identity fraud was too high. But after legislators met with law enforcement groups and allayed their concerns, Hawaii law enforcement came out in favor of the bill in 2015, and voila!, it passed.
“I’m sure it will eventually happen in Florida, because we have seen incremental progress,” Blazer said, alluding to Gov. Scott’s 2013 approval of in-state tuition being granted to “Dreamers.” There are some signs of hope.
“But,” Richardson added, “legislators in Florida are not at all interested right now in doing anything to help immigrants.”