RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Several states are taking up one issue related to the immigration debate - whether to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. Connecticut is one of a dozen states that have decided to allow thousands of these immigrants to drive. Eight other states are set to follow.
Chris Burrell reports from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING)
CHRIS BURRELL, BYLINE: Children speaking Spanish are playing a game of tag outside an immigration services center in New Haven, Conn., where I'm waiting for a man named Sebastian, who pulls up across the street in a gray sedan.
SEBASTIAN: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
BURRELL: NPR is not using his full name because of his immigration status. Sebastian's a 30-year-old from Guatemala. He's one of more than 50,000 people to get a driver's license specifically for undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.
SEBASTIAN: Before I got the license, I was scared because sometimes you see a state trooper going by, so like - thinking, oh, I hope he's not pulling me over. But after that, I have the drive license. I feel safe like American people does. They drive without worries.
BURRELL: The law allowing Sebastian to drive legally went into effect in 2015, creating what's called a Drive Only license. With the letters D-O printed on the front, it won't get anyone through airport security or on voter rolls. Sebastian had to prove residency in Connecticut, pass a written exam, vision and road tests and get insurance.
CHARLES GRASSO: People that have gotten licenses - they're trained right. So it has made the road safer.
BURRELL: That's Charles Grasso, a former Connecticut cop and now a car crash expert at the state's Transportation Safety Research Center who works with police statewide. Grasso says the driver's licenses are also changing driver behavior. If immigrants are less fearful of getting cited for unlicensed driving, they're less likely to flee a crash.
GRASSO: The feedback I'm getting is that the licenses are keeping people at the scene because they have a driver's license now.
BURRELL: Across 10 Connecticut cities with the highest concentration of Drive Only licenses, there were 1,200 fewer hit-and-run crashes since 2016, according to state data. That's a 15% decrease over three years. But Hartford Police Lieutenant Paul Cicero is skeptical about a link between fewer hit-and-run crashes and the 2,000 newly trained and licensed immigrant drivers in his city. He'd like to see more than just a few years of data. But he says the IDs do help with policing - saving officers time.
PAUL CICERO: There would be times we pulled somebody over and they don't have any ID, you know, it takes an officer off the road for one, two, three hours - typically, ruin someone's day - going to jail, getting fingerprinted, getting photographed, waiting for fingerprints to come back.
BURRELL: Money flowing into the state is one more benefit. Connecticut's Department of Motor Vehicles has collected $7.5 million in licensing fees from immigrant drivers. And with all these newly legal drivers on the road, courts in Connecticut have seen cases of unlicensed driving fall by 4,000 in the last four years, sparing those drivers a million dollars in fines.
For immigrants like Luis, a landscaper in New Haven, getting hit with fines was a hardship.
LUIS: Sometimes we don't have that money. Even myself, I got my family - I got my wife, my kids. Wow, it's too hard for me to pay you $500 in fines.
BURRELL: For Luis, not facing such fines anymore is a big relief. But he is still concerned about being a marked man with his Drive Only license, especially if he thinks it might be an ICE officer staring back at him.
LUIS: You'll give your license because they say driving only, it's not regular. So you can get arrested right away.
BURRELL: Luis' concerns about such minor traffic stops leading to deportation are part of what's fueling efforts in eight state legislatures. States leaning toward widening access to driver's licenses want to make sure these licenses don't expose license holders to discrimination by singling them out as undocumented immigrants.
It's going to be a fight. More than half the states have divided leadership, with many Republicans toeing the line of a federal administration that's very clear about wanting undocumented immigrants out, not doing them any favors.
Michael Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School who helped push for Connecticut's policy, says common sense should convince more states to follow suit.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Everyone's going to use our roads. We know that's going to happen. If your job is to protect the highways of Minnesota and you say to yourself, does it help me to have tens of thousands of people outside the system or inside the system? The answer is pretty straightforward.
BURRELL: Connecticut chose to bring its immigrants inside the system, and its experience of four years could offer a roadmap to policymakers in other states. For NPR News, I'm Chris Burrell.
MARTIN: Chris's story came to us from WGBH in Boston.