With the federal REAL ID Act set to begin implementation in 2008 and comprehensive immigration reform still unresolved, statewide policy battles are heating up again over providing immigrants access to driver’s licenses.
In the 2006 legislative session, at least 85 bills were introduced in 28 states addressing immigrant access to driver’s licenses. Meanwhile, the acceptance of the matricula consular, an identification card issued by the Mexican government, remains a live debate around the country, with policies proposed in 33 states and hundreds of municipalities that would require public officials to accept the consulate’s document as a valid ID for Mexican immigrants.
While organizers and advocates agree on the importance of providing tangible benefits for embattled immigrant communities, many are divided over the potential of IDs as a progressive policy tool.
“As we continue to work on this campaign, we keep in our minds that the driver’s license issue is crucial in holding the line in defending immigrants’ rights,” said Gouri Sadhwani, director of the New York Civic Participation Project. The project, along with the New York Coalition for Immigrants’ Right to Driver’s Licenses, introduced two bills in the state assembly allowing immigrants access to licenses regardless of their legal status. The coalition is now working with New York’s new Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, to push for a better driver’s license policy.
The battles to defend driver’s licenses and certificates, and to protect the use of matricula IDs, have been fraught with challenges: navigating around REAL ID; responding to racialized right-wing attacks; framing a broad public message without pandering to the white-fear vote; and passing policies without criminalizing provisions such as background checks and fingerprinting.
Before 9/11, campaigns for driver’s licenses had gained momentum as part of the legalization movement. Eleven states had removed restrictions regarding proof of lawful presence. In Tennessee, one of the first states to start issuing full driver’s licenses without requiring a Social Security number in early 2001—more than 180,000 immigrants got their licenses.
“A lot of advocates who work on comprehensive immigration reform saw licenses as a tangible way to plug in at the state level,” said Tyler Moran, a policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). “It was seen as part of the advocacy around legalizing immigrants and fighting for immigrant rights.”
But after 9/11, many campaigns were ha
lted and policies introduced to restrict access or overturn driver’s license laws.
With licenses under attack, the matricula consular grew in popularity as a form of identification that Mexican immigrants could use to carry out some daily activities. Between 2002 and 2004, the Mexican government issued more than two million matriculas. More than four million Mexican immigrants in the United States today are estimated to have matriculas.
As an identification document, the matricula consular provides access to financial institutions for a population that is largely without access to banks and is vulnerable to high fees in the check-cashing and remittance industry. Additionally, 10 states accepted the matricula as proof of identity to obtain a driver’s license.
Then came the REAL ID Act. Passed in May 2005 as part of a huge appropriations bill for spending on the war on terror and tsunami relief, the act became law without hearings or public debate. It requires that by 2008, for state driver’s licenses and IDs to be accepted by the federal government as proof of identification, they must comply with new requirements regarding identification documents, data storage and sharing of information, and collecting biometric data. Proof of citizenship or lawful status is another requirement for state licenses to be acceptable to federal agencies.
REAL ID redraws the lines of the debate as well as the parameters in state policy work. And it doesn’t just affect immigrants—access to documents is an issue that has a disproportionate effect on people of color and the poor.
For the nine states that have hung on to driver’s license access, attacks from the right and legislative pressure to toughen security requirements are the norm. Meanwhile, driving certificates, which indicate a person’s ability to drive but aren’t acceptable as proof of identification, are emerging as a potential model of a two-tiered system—something not all advocates agree about.
At the heart of it all is the question of whether campaigns for ID and driving access can build state-level resistance against anti-immigrant politics and restrictive federal policies.
Tennessee, which led the way in passing driver’s license access for immigrants, is also a battleground state for fighting its erosion. In 2004, the governor signed a bill repealing the license’s availability to all residents regardless of immigration status, claiming it was a threat to homeland security. The new law created a “certificate of driving” for immigrants without Social Security numbers. The certificate is for driving purposes only and not valid for identification.
“It was a step in the wrong direction as far as we were concerned,” said David Lubbell, state coordinator of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “Without a document that you can use for ID, people are still concerned that they will be pulled over by police. It’s a second-class kind of document.”
Currently, Tennessee and Utah (where it’s called a “driving privilege” card) are the only states with driving certificate policies, tho
ugh other states such as New Jersey and Wisconsin are considering this model.
“It’s actually a pretty sensitive topic,” said Moran of NILC. “Some advocates say, ‘No way, we won’t accept this. We won’t create a two-tiered society.’ And others say, ‘This is the best we can get’.”
Tennessee advocates have tried to fix aspects of the policy, such as calling for an anti-discrimination clause and making sure that the certificate is not a de facto marker of undocumented status. (Asylum seekers and visa holders also carry the certificate.) Despite the limitations of the certificate, advocates found themselves having to defend it from repeal attempts. In 2006, the governor suspended issuance of certificates to undocumented immigrants, claiming that Tennessee is being inundated with immigrants coming from other states to get the certificate.
“At this point, a large part of our members would rather have the certificate than nothing—and it’s likely that there might be nothing,” Lubbell said. “It’s almost as if we had to defend the driving certificate as an immigration proposal.”
For the coalition, that means honing their messaging and statewide communications infrastructure. The message that helped win in 2001—public safety and making sure drivers know the rules of the road—needs to get out to a lot more people, according to Lubbell. The communications strategy is also focused on “toning down the fearmongering and scapegoating.” A major push is the statewide “Welcoming Tennessee” billboard campaign. Billboards depict Latino kids saying, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Organizers hope that by framing the issue as one of welcoming immigrants, they will win more statewide support.
Wisconsin’s driver’s license law also fell victim to election-year politics, as well as the groundwork laid by REAL ID. In March 2006, a bill passed to implement a lawful presence requirement. Two senators have since drafted a certificate proposal, which will be introduced in the next session.
“Our concern is that it not be a declaration of legal status, and we want something that looks as close to the original as possible, so you’re not wearing a yellow star,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera, which supports the certificate plan.
“The driver’s license issue was a major organizing tool because it affects people so deeply,” she added. “For the families, it’s about getting to work.”
Illinois advocates began working on the driver’s license issue in 2003. The bill lost by one vote. In Spring 2005, the statewide coalition helped to pass an act allowing immigrants to use consular IDs as a valid form of identification with state agencies, but the law specifically prohibits them from being used as a form of identification in obtaining a driver’s license. In 2006, advocates introduced a driving certificate bill in the House and lost by a narrow margin. Another bill is high on the agenda for Spring 2007, according to Mehrdad Azemun of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Despite provisions for biometric data and fingerprinting that were added to the consular ID bill, Azemun argues that having the policy builds the legitimacy of matriculas and provides a stepping stone for advocates to talk about legalization.
“Politically, it helped pave the way to the driving certificate campaign,” he said. “The main messages we used were about public safety and security, cutting down on fraud. With immigrant communities, we spoke about the consular ID bill as a form of protection, as a basic way for people to identify themselves and have legitimacy.”
The license and matricula should be part of a legalization strategy, according to Roberto Lopez of Centro Sin Fronteras in Chicago. “If we had legalization, there wouldn’t be a need to pass license or matricula at the state level.”
But for Lopez, there was a certain lesson coming out of the mass immigrant mobilizations in 2006. “To see half a million Mexicans on the streets with Mexican flags—that never would have been the strategy. But we discovered that public opinion went up over the roof, at 70 percent, when people came out and marched. Public opinion was on our side, as opposed to the last 20 years when we couldn’t woo that middle-class, suburban voter. When people mobilize and say things the way they are, they defeated the Sensenbrenner bill because it was racist.”
Immigrant-friendly states like Illinois and New Mexico could be fruitful terrain for pushing the boundaries of REAL ID and contesting anti-immigrant policies.
“We have the most progressive driver’s license policy in the country,” declared Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido in Santa Fe.
So far, New Mexico has been able to hang onto access to a license for immigrants without a Social Security number. Instead, the state accepts a tax identification number, which immigrants can obtain for filing taxes, and in lieu of that, there’s a clause allowing alternative documents like a matricula. Republican legislators have attempted to repeal the law in every legislative session and failed. Two years ago, Republicans tried introducing a driving certificate, but that was defeated too.
“We didn’t pick driver’s license as an issue because we thought we could win. I remember saying, ‘I don’t think we can win.’ But our members said, ‘We need licenses, let’s figure out how we can do it’,” Diaz said. “That’s how we’ve been able to defend what we’ve fought so long and hard for.”
Passing the law took five years, and organizers approached the campaign as a way to educate and find common ground with statewide allies. Under the previous, Republican governor, they knew a license bill could not pass, and so they approached the regulatory body, the Taxation Revenue Department, and convinced its commissioner to change the requirement for a Social Security number and include undocumented immigrants who were in the process of adjusting their status.
“It was not a lot of people, but we were turning some undocumented people into basically documented. Under a Republican administration, our state was expanding instead of restricting access,” Diaz recalled. “We were very conscious of what that meant in the long run—changing the culture of our state when it comes to immigration issues.”
But Somos doesn’t see legalization as the focal point of their efforts. A federal immigration reform bill isn’t likely to solve the problems of poverty, substandard housing and racial discrimination in their community. “We are a largely Hispanic and poor state, and that’s not a coincidence,” Diaz said. “You can pass a million legalization programs, but as long as we have restrictive laws that don’t move with our economies, we’ll still have migration. Our goal is a community that doesn’t discriminate against people based on status.”
The looming question, however, remains implementation of REAL ID in 2008. A number of states introduced anti-REAL ID resolutions in 2006, but none of them passed. City councils in Santa Fe and New York City also passed resolutions opposing REAL ID and asking their states not to implement it.
Somos Un Pueblo Unido is working with allies and legislators to develop an alternative plan. In New Mexico, REAL ID would also affect many tribes with sovereignty issues and who often lack access to birth certificates and other documents required by the new law. One idea is to present the state’s residents with an “opt-out” choice—retain the state’s driver’s license and urge people to get passports for federal use instead of the REAL ID.
“Folks hate the idea of implementing REAL ID, but rejecting a federal law is still a sticking point. It’s up to us to build courage,” Diaz said. “We’re sending a message to D.C. that we’re willing to get around the restrictions, and we’re not gonna wait for you guys to get your act together. We want the country to know that New Mexico, a border state, is going the other way on these issues.”
In this context, organizing to protect immigrant access to driver’s licenses and matriculas can play a part in a larger strategy to undermine, not uphold, the status quo of REAL ID.
“Para nosotros, es imperfecta todavia pero sus efectos directos en la vida cotidiana de millones de mexicanos son ya muy positivos,” wrote Jorge Castaneda about matriculas in La Opinión. “For us, it’s imperfect, but the direct effects in the everyday lives of millions of Mexicans are still very positive.”
The right to documents and protection for people who move across the globe has always lagged behind the priority of moving money. While migrant rights are far from gaining adequate recognition by governments, the United Nations or other international bodies, consular IDs and consulate advocacy can be placed in a global justice context, according to Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He points to a different model of a national ID.
“We were just in Venezuela a few months ago, where they have a huge number of immigrants from Colombia—80 to 90 percent of the street vendors,” Rajah said. “There’s been a push from the government to register everyone for a national ID. They recognize that if you’re an immigrant and settled there, you get an ID and have all the rights that go with that ID.”
Tram Nguyen is the executive editor of ColorLines magazine.