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Driver's licenses approved for undocumented immigrants advances in Minnesota Legislature

Driver’s licenses approved for undocumented immigrants poised to advance in Minnesota Legislature
Driver’s licenses approved for undocumented immigrants poised to advance in Minnesota Legislature 03:05

ST. PAUL, Minn. – A Minnesota House panel has advanced legislation that would allow the thousands of undocumented immigrants in the state to obtain a driver's license.

The effort, dubbed "driver's licenses for all," is 20 years in the making for supporters of the policy, who say it will improve public safety and allow people without legal status to continue contributing to the state's economy.

"This bill is really about the tens of thousands of individuals and families who lack access to this basic need," said Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, who's sponsoring the bill. "It's about human dignity."

In 2003, then-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an administrative rule change that barred undocumented immigrants from getting driver's licenses.

If approved, Minnesota wouldn't be the first to implement a law like this: 18 states and Washington, D.C. have authorized driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Almost two dozen people testified during a House Transportation Committee Tuesday morning, including law enforcement, clergy members, business groups and even some immigrants directly impacted.

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka said changing the law would make Minnesota roads safer by allowing undocumented people to learn the rules of the road and get car insurance.

"The reality is that a majority of these parties are probably driving anyways for work purposes, and to have them properly licensed with proper training just increases the safety for everyone involved," Soyka said.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 81,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Minnesota, most of them from Mexico.

Regina Olono Vidales said she is among that immigrant population. The recent college graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College described challenges navigating campus and internships without a license. Now working for Unidos Minnesota, she said she still faces transportation hurdles.

"People like us live in fear every day, just from going to work, to class, to go get groceries, you name it," Olono Vidales said. "This is an issue of transportation, accessibility, education, public safety and so much more."

Previous versions of this policy introduced over the years received bipartisan support, but Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, the GOP ranking member on the Transportation Committee, expressed concern about the proposal in its current form. He and other Republicans in the Senate, where there is also a bill introduced, would like a way to differentiate a license for a person without legal status and other driver's licenses for citizens. 

"Allowing an undocumented immigrant to acquire a driver's license that looks exactly like the license used by a legal Minnesota resident is asking for trouble. There are no safeguards included in this bill, which means the potential for voting and state program abuse is strong," Petersburg said. "If the goal is to just let undocumented people have driving privileges, then there should be no objection to making the license reflect their undocumented status."

In 2019, the House passed driver's licenses for all and amended it so that the identification card would include the words "not for voting."

For businesses with jobs to fill, Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said employers are an answer to workforce woes in one of the tightest labor markets in the country.

Minnesota also saw stagnant population growth between 2021 and 2022 and less than 1%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The chamber, the Minnesota Pork Producers and Minnesota Milk Producers support the bill.

"Minnesota employers rely on immigrant workers to serve their customers and produce the goods and services we use and enjoy," Bordelon said. "Our groups support federal immigration reform and recognize that as we wait for immigration solutions on the federal level, the state has a role in dealing with state specific issues."

The legislation will next have a hearing in the House judiciary committee.

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