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Laura E. Enriquez Headshot

Driver's Licenses: A Tool for Nativist Politics or an Opportunity for Incorporation?

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Due to a lack of federal reform, state-level immigration policies have become common. While Arizona's SB-1070 is perhaps the most infamous of these state laws, driving-related laws, including access to driver's licenses, are a common means of addressing the presence of undocumented immigrants in our communities.

Over the years, some states have taken more integrative approaches, allowing all state-residents, regardless of their legal status, to access driver's licenses. Alternatively, some states seek to exclude and/or drive out undocumented immigrants by explicitly denying them access. Even New Mexico, one of the few states that provide all residents access to driver's licensees, is seeing movement to repeal this law.

These laws have gotten more complicated in the case of undocumented young adults who have been granted a temporary type of legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. While California passed a law granting DACA recipients access to licenses, Arizona passed a law denying them access. Meanwhile, Iowa reversed its position in response to pressure from civil rights groups. North Carolina is now attempting to bridge these approaches, issuing a driver's license that will have a pink stripe noting that the holder has "no lawful status."

North Carolina's policy has drawn criticism as opponents compare the pink stripes to the Stars of David used to identify Jewish individuals in Nazi Germany or the scarlet letters used to ostracize people in colonial New England. History shows us that these blatant forms of social stigmatization are condemned as time passes. However, our society has once again fallen into the same trap -- dehumanizing fellow community members because we have not become better at tolerating difference.

In this case, labeling driver's licenses with pink stripes may not affect their use as actual legal permission to drive, but it will affect how individuals use these licenses to participate in society. Think about all the ways you use your license. It's not very often that you actually use it to prove you are qualified to drive a car. More often, you use it to prove your age and who you are.

For undocumented immigrants, they are already subjected to social stigma for the types of IDs they are forced to use in the absence of state-issued licenses or identification cards. Almost every individual I have talked to while conducting research has been judged or denied access because they show consulate IDs or passports from their country of origin. While North Carolina's striped licenses are problematic and dehumanizing, they will most likely simply maintain the stigma that already exists when using alternative IDs.

However, stigmatizing licenses is a way to make sure that fewer undocumented immigrants do not take full advantage of this new right, either declining to apply for a license or using it sparingly. Providing for full access to and use of driver's licenses can open up opportunities for institutional participation and mobility. Having this common form of ID makes it easier to participate in common social activities -- going to an R-rated movie or meeting friends for drinks. While this seems unimportant, not being able to access these spaces and feel comfortable in these situations can isolate individuals, cutting them off from friendships and social networks and preventing social integration.

In addition, not having legal permission to drive creates physical immobility, which hurts the prospects for upward mobility; basically it makes it harder to go to work or school since individuals fear being detained by police and deported. Making access to licenses/IDs contingent upon accepting a stigmatizing label thus limits their potential for positively changing people's lives.

Rather than allowing nativist and anti-immigrant groups to use driver's license laws as a tool to further exclude undocumented immigrants, we need to advocate for and pass inclusive driver's license laws that can be used as a means of facilitating immigrant incorporation as we build up to immigration reform. Not only will providing access to licenses meet the intended goal of ensuring public safety, but it will promote immigrant integration and social cohesion.

Stigmatizing and excluding undocumented immigrants from society makes it harder for them to come out of the shadows and access a pathway to legalization. While every undocumented immigrant I speak with believes that a pathway to legalization will dramatically improve their lives, many still believe that spending a large portion of their life being undocumented has lasting effects. As one person told me, "deep inside me I will always have that mark that at one point I was always denied resources." Driver's licenses are a way to minimize these marks, facilitating immigrants' current social participation and their future integration after a pathway to legalization is created.