Undocumented Drivers Wary Of License Program

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Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws to grant driver's licenses to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. But applicants face hurdles, like language barriers and fear of deportation.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Immigration reform has gone nowhere for now. Congress is on vacation, and in the absence of federal action, states are stepping in to figure out how to deal with their immigrant populations. As part of that, 11 states and the District of Columbia have began issuing driver's licenses to people who are living in the U.S. illegally. The move is unsurprisingly controversial. And there have been troubles rolling to program out, as we discovered when we went to a town hall meeting with immigrants here in D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED IMMIGRANTS: Si.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a packed auditorium in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, Latino immigrants crowd in to hear how the new program works.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are jobs that we can't get if we can't drive - isn't that right? - the Latino rights advocate asks the group. Proponents of the new program say that giving driver's licenses to immigrants improves public safety. Immigrants have to take both a written and practical driving test, which will allow them to get insurance and drive a car. It's not a federally recognized ID, so they can't use it to get on a plane. But they can open a bank account with it, for example. People line up to ask questions. They don't give their names. Despite the potential benefits, some of them say they are afraid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This woman wants assurances that the information will be used against her in the future. Some of those here today are under deportation orders. They're worried that letting any government entity know who and where they are will lead to expulsion from the country. The license also looks different, making some advocates worry that it draws attention to the status of the holder. And there are other, more basic hurdles. This man says he's been here for several years but doesn't have any way to prove it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many immigrants who come here illegally don't have any ID. Here in D.C., applicants need a passport plus a secondary document like a birth certificate or school records to get the new license. They also have to prove residency. The move to give legal IDs to immigrants with no legal status here has stirred up a lot of opposition.

ROY BECK: When a state issues driver's licenses to illegal aliens, they are telling people that have broken immigration laws that basically, it's OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a group that opposes illegal immigration. He says the very fact these documents are being given out encourages people to make the dangerous journey to the U.S.

BECK: No state government, no local government or federal government should be encouraging people from other countries to come in, break the law and take these jobs that are supposed to be there for Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are other reasons why the new ID has come under fire. In D.C. some 80 percent of people taking the test have failed. Compare that to around 58 percent for a traditional driver's license. Advocates say there are problems with the Spanish-language version of the manual and not having Spanish-speaking members of staff who can administer the test.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL: Lights?

MIGUEL: So we're going this way?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that hasn't deterred Miguel. He's learning how to drive from his girlfriend, Rachel. We aren't using their full names at their request. He's from Mexico, but he's been living in the U.S. illegally for 15 years. She is American-born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL: Make sure when you turn left you turn into the left lane, though.

MIGUEL: OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rachel takes him out in their car after they both finish work so he can prepare for the driving test he's scheduled to take in a few weeks' time.

MIGUEL: I just think it's a very important document to have. A document - because I pay taxes every year and this document is very important, not just to drive. It's just to show the government that I exist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miguel is also studying for his GED. He wants to go to college after he gets his diploma. But before that, he wants to do something a little less serious. What are you going to do when you get your license? What is the first thing you'll do?

MIGUEL: Get a drink. (Laughter).

RACHEL: Drive without me.

MIGUEL: Drive without my girlfriend next to me. It's not that it's annoying. It's just...

RACHEL: You can do it without me, so...

MIGUEL: I can do it without her, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're listening to NPR News.

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