Mayor Vincent C. Gray is set to introduce legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain D.C. driver’s licenses, following similar moves by Maryland and several other states.
The legislation, according to a Facebook posting Tuesday night by the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement, “would allow all eligible District residents the right to obtain a driver’s license or DC identification card, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.”
Gray, who is set to unveil the bill at a news conference Thursday afternoon, declined to discuss the proposal Wednesday. “We’re still working through certain issues, and I’d rather not preempt myself,” he said.
A person familiar with what Gray is likely to propose but is not authorized to speak publicly about it said that the bill would not allow illegal immigrants living in the District to obtain the same driver’s license as a legal resident. The document would be a separate type of license for those who cannot prove legal residency.
Immigrant advocates have backed moves to ease access to licenses, noting that many undocumented immigrants have little choice but to drive and risk deportation for minor traffic offenses. Offering driver’s licenses more broadly, they also argue, would improve road safety.
Opponents in some states have said that easing documentation requirements could pose security threats and violate federal law.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study estimated that 25,000 illegal immigrants live in the District, about 4.5 percent of its population.
In January, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) introduced a bill that would prevent the city from requiring that license applicants provide a Social Security number if they did not have one. Applicants would still have to prove their identity, city residency and driving proficiency, according to Department of Motor Vehicles standards.
The bill, the Non-Driver’s Identification Card/Driver’s License Amendment Act of 2013, was co-sponsored by 10 additional council members, making its passage likely. But a similar council bill introduced in 2011 did not receive a hearing and did not advance.
Graham said Wednesday that he was “thrilled” that Gray was backing similar legislation.
“These folks are going to drive whether they have a license or do not have a license,” he said. “We’re much better off having people behind the wheel who are properly certified to operate a vehicle.”
The Maryland General Assembly last month passed legislation, set to be signed Thursday by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), that sets up a “second-class” driver’s license that applicants could obtain without providing a Social Security number or other proof of legal status. Applicants will have to provide proof of identification, as well as two years of state tax returns.
The Maryland second-class licenses will appear largely the same as regular licenses, but would be marked as not valid for federal purposes, including boarding airline flights.
Gray, according to a media advisory, is calling his bill the “Drivers Safety Act,” much as the Maryland bill was styled the “Highway Safety Act” in a bid to highlight the bill’s goal of decreasing the number of unlicensed drivers.
But Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the union representing D.C. police officers, said he thought the bill was more about politics than safety.
“I have not seen any concern or any data that would tell me this is a public safety issue,” he said.
Illinois, New Mexico and Washington also issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The Oregon legislature on Tuesday approved legislation allowing licenses to be issued to the undocumented, and legislatures in Connecticut, California and Colorado are considering similar bills.
Virginia requires license applicants to provide a Social Security number, as well as proof of “legal presence,” such as a birth certificate or green card.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.