Chief among them is legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a years-long goal that the Northam administration estimates would affect 308,000 people.
That privilege — which exists in Maryland, the District and 14 other states — was long blocked by Republicans when they controlled the General Assembly.
A driver’s license bill in the Senate won preliminary approval Friday, with a final vote expected Monday. A similar proposal in the House of Delegates appears headed for a floor vote Tuesday.
Proposals to allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper in-state college tuition, bar local police across the state from asking crime victims about immigration status and create a new office for immigrant services have also sailed toward approval.
“The transformation that is happening is incredible,” said Luis A. Aguilar, the Virginia director of the CASA immigrant advocacy group, which has filled several committee hearings with activists advocating for the changes since the legislative session began Jan. 8.
“This fight is not just about the individual bills,” Aguilar said. “The fight is truly about equity.”
Republican lawmakers have resisted most of the changes, but with little effect so far.
During a House committee hearing last month about the driver’s license issue, Del. Terry L. Austin (R-Botetourt) argued that allowing undocumented immigrants to carry an official state ID opens the door to identity fraud.
“This license can be taken as the person is a citizen of the United States,” Austin said. “This could misrepresent an individual’s identity and compromise the safety in the United States.”
Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), the bill’s sponsor, countered that the measure would place more insured drivers on the road who have passed state driving tests. The bill moved to the next phase of approval on a party-line vote.
In that climate, several Democratic-majority state legislatures have passed laws seeking to protect undocumented immigrants, while others have moved to limit their state’s role in federal immigration enforcement, according to a recent report by the National Immigration Law Center.
Red states have moved in the opposite direction. Florida and Arkansas both recently passed “anti-sanctuary” laws in support of tougher enforcement.
Locally, Maryland — where nearly 276,000 undocumented immigrants are allowed to drive under a 2013 license law — recently expanded its “Dream Act” for students seeking to attend college in the state. Undocumented students no longer will be required to attend a two-year community college before they can receive tuition discounts. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tried to veto the bill, but the Democratic-majority General Assembly overturned the veto last month.
Last year, the District — which has allowed undocumented immigrants to drive since 2014 and offers the same tuition rates for all residents — ended a jail policy of holding undocumented inmates wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement beyond their release dates.
But with the Trump administration increasingly pressuring states to hand over information on undocumented immigrants, some activists worry federal immigration officials will try to use Department of Motor Vehicles records to target people for deportation.
Ann Morse, who analyzes immigrant-related laws for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said officials around the country “are trying to weigh encouraging people to sign up for driver’s licenses and become insured versus the concern that ICE is now coming into state databases and hijacking that information.” She said some states have passed laws that require federal officials to have a court order or federal warrant before they are allowed access to DMV records.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it will no longer allow New York residents to participate in its Global Entry program for travelers because of a “Green Light Law” for undocumented drivers that went into effect in December and prohibits information-sharing without a judge’s order. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) denied that the law posed any security risk for the Global Entry program, which applies only to U.S. citizens and allows for faster passage through airports after a one-time background check.
Virginia Democrats hope to avoid similar federal action with language in their main driver’s license bill that allows federal officials access to individual records if they identify the person they’re investigating and provide a compelling reason for that information.
“If a law enforcement agency makes a request about a specific person, then they can get that information about that specific person,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), the chief sponsor of that bill. “But it does not allow them to get a bulk upload so they can do data mining.”
Surovell said opening up driving privileges to undocumented immigrants would allow thousands of people in Virginia to travel to work or take their children to school without breaking the law.
Many undocumented immigrants have resorted to getting their driver’s licenses in Maryland, which is possible when one’s car is registered in that state. The District has stricter residency requirements for driver’s licenses.
Last month, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a nonpartisan organization, estimated that a driver’s license law would bring the state as much as $17.7 million in extra title fees, car registrations and other taxes over the next two years.
Democrats favor allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license that is not also a federal “Real ID” card, which, starting in October, will be required to board an airplane and enter federal buildings in the United States.
Real ID cards require proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency. The more limited driver’s licenses are available to people who have passed a driving test, show they have car insurance and prove that they live in Virginia, state officials say.
Surovell said the Senate is also considering a renewable “driver privilege card” for undocumented immigrants, though advocacy groups oppose that idea.
For Sandra Mejia, 40, the ability to drive would mean not having to pay an Uber driver to ferry her 12-year-old and 16-year-old to and from their Fairfax County schools, which she says costs about $100 per week.
Mejia, a cosmetics saleswoman in Springfield who arrived from El Salvador in 2002, said she has resisted the temptation to drive without a license out of fear of being stopped and then deported.
“My son gets frustrated,” she said. “He wants me to take him to football practice. But imagine if I’m detained? They would be left all alone.”
Sunhee Choi, who arrived from South Korea in 2003 and is undocumented, said she has been restricted to working at a grocery store food court within walking distance of her home in Centreville.
Even with buses available, “it’s hard to get around,” Choi, 52, said through an interpreter. “I can’t do anything without help from others. A car is like legs to us.”