Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

A symbolic road to equality.

           On January 1 of this year,  driver privilege cards were granted in Virginia, thanks to the Republican party no longer holding a majority in Congress. While they are not Real Ids or standard driver’s licenses, they can be achieved with reported income and proof that holders are claimed dependent on taxes. For non-citizens in Virginia, this was a step in the right direction towards equality. However, fear of exposure to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and amplified backlogs at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) are creating obstacles for non-citizens to attempt the driving tests.

     Of the 50 states that make up the United States of America, only 15 states and the District provide driver privilege cards to undocumented immigrants in our country. The fact that undocumented citizens are not permitted driver’s licenses in the remaining 35 states speaks loudly on our country’s founding principle that “men are all equal.”

           It is hard enough for undocumented immigrants to find jobs, a living, and medical assistance, but to be prohibited from driving is simply oppressive.

           Not only do they have to fight for their jobs and a stable living, but now they have to worry about how to find rides to work. People in opposition to the privilege card argue that there are other options, like Uber, the bus, or to asking a friend for a ride; but the price that comes with these is just unrealistic. These cards provide safety to all drivers, equality to non-citizens in Virginia, and hope for a better future.

           One might ask, how did undocumented immigratns in Virginia and elsewhere get around before this license  came into being? Many drove illegally or committed address fraud, declaring reisdency in states that did grant drivers licenses to undocumented citizens.

     Undocumented immigrants need to thrive in this country to break the cycle of generational poverty. While some place the blame on non-citizens for breaking these laws, the blame belongs to our state’s government for prohibiting them from driving legally,  allowing this oppression to go on for as long as it did. 

          Virginia’s bill granting undocumented immigrants driver privilege cards makes Virginia the first southern state to let non-citizens legally drive. The fight to make this possible was very long and frustrating for allies nationwide hoping the legislation would pass. Now that the bill has passed, over 300,000 non-citizens are eligible for a driver’s privilege card, allowing them to  pay lower in-state college tuition. Local police are no longer allowed to ask for immigration status.  

           If 300,000 people resorted to driving illegally or not at all, it is crucial to recognize how damaging not just to these people, but to the safety of all drivers. Governors had to have inferred that a large sum of the 300,000 undocumented immigrants would resort to driving illegally, but clearly that did not make a difference in passing this legislation sooner. This goes to show driver safety is less important than the oppression of non-citizens. Unfortunately, the 35 other states that do not allow driver’s privilege cards, still have their priorities wrong. 

          While Virginia has achieved some justice with this bill, many undocumented citizens fear that obtaining a driver’s privilege card will expose them to ICE as citizens have real ids. Arrest without a license can be a common fast-track for deportation. Additionally, just two years ago in 2019, 20,000 people were deported by ICE due to a traffic related violation. It is not surprising that many non-citizens are hesitant to start the process. The extreme downsides when it comes to driving laws regarding undocumented citizens and ICE are incredibly appalling. While ICE may say that requesting drivers personal data is not related to ICE, evidence shows that in certain cases it is just untrue. According to the Center for Public Integrity, investigation shows that at least seven states have given drivers’ personal information to ICE since January 2020. Most agents will say they are “criminal suspects” but in reality they are looking for infringements like an expired visa.

     Thankfully Virginia, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington have laws that require court orders or warrants before leaking information. At the same time, at least in Virginia, this is truly the safest option for them. It is unfortunate that those same laws that our supposed to benefit undocumented immigrants are used to harm them.

          The saying that “men are all equal” has never been realized, and it will take untold years of work to realize it. But on January 1, Virginia took a significant step towards achieving equality.