This week, thousands of immigrants, documented and undocumented, gathered in Washington, D.C. to rally for comprehensive immigration reform, hoping to tip the scales of Congressional bipartisan support.
The city's Mayor Vince C. Gray (D), if he chooses, can support these immigration reform efforts via executive order, by directing the Department of Motor Vehicles to remove the Social Security Number requirement from DMV applications, thus allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to get a driver's license.
Presently, 25,000 undocumented immigrants in the District of Columbia cannot obtain a driver's license from the DMV. Gray could easily change this, and it would come with substantial City Council backing. A bill introduced in the City Council this year, by Phil Mendelson and Jim Graham, cosponsored by council members Cheh, Bowser, Bonds, Evans, Alexander, McDuffie, Catania, and Grosso, retains the mayor's right to ask for a Social Security number but stipulates that the mayor cannot ultimately deny a driver's license to a resident not holding a SSN.
Not all states are as restrictive as D.C.'s current laws. Washington, Illinois, Utah and New Mexico already provide driver's licenses to all eligible residents regardless of immigration status. More states will likely follow suit in the wake of President Barack Obama's deferred action program for undocumented youth. The program allows youth who came to the U.S. as children to apply for a two-year work permit to lawfully stay in the country and work.
The need for a driver's license, then, becomes clear. If the government is going to allow immigrants to stay here legally and work, it makes sense to ensure ample options for legal transport to their place of work. For many of these jobs, driving is a necessity, whether it's getting to work locations that are far from metro access, taking children to childcare or school, buying groceries, or providing care for family members. And necessity often takes priority. When people are not afforded the option to get a license, they often drive without one.
This is already happening, which raises a safety imperative. Many undocumented immigrants are driving without training, testing, licensing or insurance. The District should ensure that these drivers first pass a written knowledge test, successfully complete a road test, and have good enough vision to drive safely.
Lives are at stake. According to a recent DMV study, drivers who are unlicensed or have a suspended or revoked license are nearly three times more likely to cause a fatal crash. Imagine this, on the already jam-packed freeways of the D.C. metro area.
The economic imperative is also not lost on anyone savvy enough to see it. By denying driver's licenses to tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in D.C., that's forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars -- from testing, licensing and registration fees -- from ever entering the city's coffers, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars from insurance premiums. Improving the efficiency of worker transport, furthermore, should help improve overall economic productivity and performance. Our economy relies on immigrant labor, as undocumented immigration make up 4.5 percent of the work force, so it makes sense for us to make it easier for immigrant families to work here.
Lastly, there is a legal imperative. By providing identification to immigrants, they will be less vulnerable to abuses, such as wage theft and unsafe working conditions, and closer to the kind of immigration accountability called for by Congress. This should be an absolutely bipartisan effort. It is an essential step in bringing immigrants out of the shadows and into the legal requirements expected in any reform effort.
While City Council members have introduced legislation to allow undocumented residents to obtain driver's licenses, legislation is not needed to accomplish this goal. The director of the DMV or the mayor could decide tomorrow to allow all D.C. residents to obtain a driver's license.
There are solid imperatives -- regarding safety, economic productivity and legal status -- that beckon this change. To continue denying D.C. resident's access to identification and driving privileges not only entrenches discrimination against undocumented people, by fettering freedom of movement, but also creates a permanent subset of second-class residents.
With the recent sea change in public opinion toward creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and with bipartisan consensus mounting in Congress, Mayor Gray has a real opportunity to effect change in the nation's capital while making a bold statement for the nation as a whole. And that change begins behind the wheel and in the wallet. Let the licensing begin.
Michael Shank is a professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Lindsay Schubiner is a Jeremiah Fellow with Jews United for Justice. This article first ran in the Washington Post.