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Another Voice: Driver's license should be available to all immigrants

By Jennifer R. Guzmán

As an anthropologist doing field work with dairy farmworkers, I have learned that many struggle to fulfill basic needs because they cannot drive. They must rely on the goodwill of employers and on paid drivers to access such necessities as food and medical care. Sadly, some drivers exploit immigrants’ vulnerability by charging exorbitant rates. Imagine paying $20 to $60 for a ride to the grocery store.

All immigrant residents were able to obtain driver’s licenses in the state of New York until 2002, when a policy change made licenses inaccessible to those unable to prove their immigration status. Today, 12 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico issue special driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. New York should be the next to do so.

New York State Assembly Bill A4050 would create a limited-purpose driver’s license accessible to undocumented residents. Under this law, those who passed the driving test could drive and register vehicles but not use the document to board a plane, vote or alter their immigration status.

This proposed law would benefit all New Yorkers. According to impact reports by the Fiscal Policy Institute and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, restoring access to licenses will boost state and local economies. License and vehicle registration fees will contribute to county governments and transportation infrastructure. And an increase in licensed drivers will likely lower insurance premiums for everyone. The average cost of auto insurance is $17.22 lower in states where undocumented residents can drive.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that extending driving privileges to undocumented immigrants in California led to a significant decrease in hit-and-run accidents and no increase in accidents or fatal accidents overall.

The study demonstrates that when everyone who needs to drive is able to do so with a license and insurance, roads and communities are safer. Law enforcement can identify people efficiently following accidents and traffic stops. Victims and witnesses to crimes are more willing to alert authorities.

Limited-purpose driver’s licenses are also a just and humane transportation solution for immigrant families in our communities. Undocumented immigrants in New York State pay $1.1 billion in state and local taxes annually. On farms in our region, they constitute a large percentage of workers and are indispensable to the agricultural economy.

We rely on them for the dairy, fruits and vegetables we eat every day. Immigrant farmworkers shop in our businesses and belong to our churches. Their children are classmates with our children.

There are concrete benefits associated with Assembly Bill A4050, but more importantly, we owe this gesture of decency to our undocumented neighbors. We should urge our elected officials to pass this legislation.

Jennifer R. Guzmán is assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY Geneseo.

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