Why Undocumented Immigrants Need Driver's Licenses

When you're undocumented, a driver's license is not only a driver's license — it's proof that you exist. And while immigrants and allies wait for Congress to act, some local leaders are stepping up.

Stringer / Reuters

California Governor Jerry Brown signed bill AB 60 into law this month — the law will let the state's undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver's license.

To be an undocumented immigrant — to live and work as one of New York City's half-million undocumented immigrants — is to obsess over documents.

That's why the top two points of "Safe, Open City," Bill de Blasio's five-point, 3,000-word immigration policy blueprint, make up the most progressive and inclusive plan for immigrant families in any big city in America. Facing an expected general election landslide victory next week, the future de Blasio administration vows to offer a universal ID card for all residents and lead the fight in Albany to allow undocumented immigrants across the state to apply for driver's licenses.

"Immigration made us great, it made us strong, it made us the entrepreneurial envy of the world, it made us the creative capital of the world. It made us a place where diversity is natural — where we speak every language and we think that's normal and good and right. Immigration made us the best and strongest city on earth," de Blasio, the grandson of Italian immigrants, said over email.

"If our national government doesn't understand that, we will do what we can to establish the kind of laws that actually respect everyone who lives in the city of New York: our neighbors, our friends, those we love," he said.

You cannot overstate the value of these documents for the undocumented residents of America's most populous city. At a time of seeming congressional inertia on passing immigration reform, particularly on the House Republican side, de Blasio joins other civic leaders in providing a welcome and much-needed reprieve. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown of California, home to 2.5 of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, sent a loud, unmistakable signal to Washington: In addition to signing a bill granting licenses to the state's undocumented drivers, Brown also signed the Trust Act, which prohibits local enforcement agencies from holding people for deportation if they arrested for minor crimes — like, for example, driving without a license. When you're undocumented, a driver's license is not only driver's license, it's proof that you exist.

"How do you live without identification?" Ravi Ragbir, an undocumented worker, told members of New York City Council's Committee on Immigration last Thursday. Ragbir has been detained in holding centers. "How can you open a bank account, how do you even come into a building like this, City Hall, to testify? Because everyone is everyone asking for ID."

Ragbir testified on the same day President Obama delivered a be-hopeful-but-don't-get-your-hopes-up speech imploring congressional action on immigration reform by the end of the year. There are positive signs. Over the weekend, Rep. Jeff Denham, who represents a heavily Latino district in California, broke ranks with the GOP and became the only Republican with 185 Democrats to co-sponsor a plan to give a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Two days later, he was joined by Rep. Ileana Roe-Lehtinen, the most senior Republican woman in the House, and the first Hispanic woman and Cuban-American to be elected to Congress. But if the government shutdown is any indication, congressional dysfunction is now the status quo in Washington. As the president himself intoned, "Obviously, just because something is smart and fair and good for the economy and fiscally responsible, supported by business and labor and the evangelical community, and many Democrats and many Republicans, doesn't mean that will actually get done."

Translation: Sit down, this may take a while.

I am, by most definitions, a New York City resident. My home address is in Manhattan, where I've rented an apartment since August 2009. I pay taxes here. I pay a monthly Con Edison bill, and like many New Yorkers, I regularly complain about Time Warner Cable. Through my production company, I hired New York City-based filmmakers (special thanks to NYU's film program) to help me produce and edit a documentary film. Above all, I've built a life in this city, the rhythm, spirit, and thrill of which can be summed up by two quintessential New York City songs in my iPod: "Another Hundred People" by Stephen Sondheim ("It's a city of strangers / Some come to work, some to play / A city of strangers / Some come to stare, some to stay"), and "Empire of State of Mind" by Jay Z and Alicia Keys ("New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of / There's nothing you can't do").

Indeed, there's nothing you can't do — except get papers.

That's because on paper, by legal definition, neither the New York City nor New York state government recognize me as a New Yorker. I do not have any government-issued identification. No New York Public Library card. No driver's license. No ID from the state of New York. To travel within the United States, I use a passport issued to me by the Philippine Embassy as ID to fly in and out of JFK and LaGuardia. (The passport does not have a visa and cannot be used for international travel.)

While undocumented immigrants — not to mention our families, friends, and allies — await fair, humane, and sweeping immigration reform, how many other leaders will follow in the footsteps of Gov. Brown in California and de Blasio of New York City?

  • Jose Antonio Vargas

    Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented American, is a journalist, the writer-director of the documentary "Documented," and the founder of Define American, which uses culture to shift the conversation on immigration, citizenship and identity.

    Contact Jose Antonio Vargas at joseiswriting@gmail.com.

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