Mayor Vincent C. Gray(D) proposed a bill last week that would permit undocumented District residents to acquire driver’s licenses and identification cards. D.C. is the latest in a string of states that have taken similar steps in response to immigrant rights organizing, such as Maryland and Oregon.
But unlike current driver’s license regulations in the state of Washington and
New Mexico, Gray’s proposal would create a distinct type of driver’s license that would immediately identify its holders as undocumented. The problem with this approach is that it exacerbates discrimination and endangers immigrants, and our community, even more.
All residents, including those who are undocumented, need driver’s licenses or identification to get to work, rent an apartment, enter government buildings, or open a bank account. Our economy depends on it. And our safety depends on all drivers being required to pass the tests needed to obtain a license.
By pushing a separate, marked driver’s license the Mayor inadvertently makes our communities less safe. His plan carries with it the potential to increase racial profiling in the District and it fails to solve many of the problems caused by lack of access to driver’s licenses and identification in the first place.
If undocumented D.C. residents risk disclosing their immigration status simply by carrying a driver’s license, many may -- quite logically -- choose not to do so at all. There has been very little research on the current impacts of a two-tiered driver’s license system, particularly since this type of system is new or not fully implemented in many states. But a marked license poses real dangers to undocumented immigrants, particularly if they drive to nearby Maryland or Virginia, both of which deputize police as immigration enforcement agents in some areas through the federal 287(g) program. If immigrants are unwilling to take the risk of carrying a marked driver’s license, the benefits of expanding driver’s license access are undermined entirely.
That is why Mayor Gray and the D.C. Council would do well to follow the lead of Washington, New Mexico, and local immigrant communities in granting the same driver’s license to all residents. In New Mexico, equal licenses appear to be working. Over 80,000 immigrants have successfully applied for driver’s licenses, and the uninsured motorist rate has decreased from 21 percent in 2003, when access to driver’s licenses was expanded to all residents, to 9 percent in recent years.
Mayor Gray’s counter is that he cannot grant equal driver’s licenses for all District residents because the law would violate the federal REAL ID Act and would be vulnerable to Congressional intervention.
Upon closer examination, however, his arguments prove weak. Unless the House, the Senate, and the President take action to overturn a new D.C. law within thirty legislative days, the law will take effect.
In the midst of current Congressional efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and given Congress’ well-known difficulty coming to bipartisan agreement, it is highly unlikely that they would meddle in such a hot-button issue. Additionally, the highly controversial REAL ID Act has not yet been fully implemented, eight years after President Bush signed it into law. The REAL ID Act requires the development of a national database of all drivers and strict state standards for obtaining a driver’s license or identification card.
The Act has generated significant opposition due to serious privacy concerns and the potential to track individual data. In fact, only 19 states are currently in compliance with REAL ID standards. States have not only resisted implementing the provisions of the REAL ID Act, but in many cases they have explicitly opposed the Act.
The District’s City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging the repeal of the REAL ID Act. None other than Mayor Vincent Gray himself, at that time a Council member, voted for repeal. The federal government has delayed the enforcement of REAL ID provisions numerous times, most recently at the end of 2012.
D.C. does not currently comply with the REAL ID Act, and it seems to be making no concrete efforts to do so beyond the Mayor’s proposal. Absent imminent enforcement of the REAL ID Act by the Department of Homeland Security, it is illogical for D.C. officials to preemptively obey an unenforced federal mandate that they themselves oppose.
The Mayor’s line of reasoning, then, appears to be nothing more than a poor excuse to throw D.C.’s immigrant communities under the bus. In response, immigrant communities across D.C. are organizing for equal, unmarked driver’s licenses, and will hold a rally in front of the D.C. Council this week. D.C. Council members should listen closely, as they will soon have the opportunity to amend the Mayor’s bill.
The Council has an easy solution available: allow all residents the access to the same driver’s license until the federal government begins enforcing the REAL ID Act. It makes little sense to stake the lives and futures of D.C. residents on an unenforced federal mandate with no firm deadline.
In a progressive, pro-immigrant city such as D.C., we must not accept a separate and unequal system of identification that stigmatizes and endangers some D.C. residents, families, and workers. If, and when, the Department of Homeland Security begins to enforce the REAL ID Act, the Mayor and Council will be fully capable of changing D.C. practices in order to comply. Until then, D.C. should act like the welcoming global city it aspires to be.
Shank is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a regular contributor to The RootDC. Schubiner is a Jeremiah Fellow with Jews United for Justice.