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D.C. Starts Issuing Driver's Licenses To Undocumented Immigrants

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The new limited-purpose driver's licenses will look like standard D.C. licenses, but will include a disclaimer that they cannot be used for federal purposes like boarding a plane.
D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles
The new limited-purpose driver's licenses will look like standard D.C. licenses, but will include a disclaimer that they cannot be used for federal purposes like boarding a plane.

Today the District starts issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the city for at least six months, joining only 10 states and Puerto Rico that currently do so.

Until today, undocumented immigrants in D.C. who wanted to drive a car had to do so illegally, since they were not eligible for a driver’s license. But last year the D.C. Council passed and Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill creating a new license and ID card for residents in the country illegally, following the lead of states like Maryland and California.

The limited-purpose licenses are being made available today, and city officials estimate that between 16,000 and 19,000 residents could get one of the new licenses. According to immigrant advocates, the new credentials will offer numerous benefits to their holder.

"In terms of the driver's license, I think that will allow just an increased mobility and access for undocumented people to have a valid identification that can be used in a number of different ways, whether it's for education purposes, employment purposes, just for pure identification purposes," says Susana Martinez of the Latin American Youth Center.

Roxana Olivas, the director of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, says that a significant benefit will be in access to higher education.

"They'll be able to use it, if you're a student or you just graduated, to get what we call the DREAM Act, because you do need an ID to get into UDC," she says, referring to the law that allows undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents to access benefits like in-state tuition at public universities.

What the license won’t do is allow undocumented immigrants to use it to enter federal buildings or board a plane. That’s because the federal government still considers the IDs and their holders unlawful, and in order to comply with a new federal law on secure ID cards, D.C. officials had to distinctly mark the new limited-purpose driver's licenses.

"Our limited purpose driver's license and ID cards will look just like our existing credentials, except that they will have the words 'Not for official federal purposes,' and that is a federal requirement that we mark those credentials such," said Lucinda Babers, the director of the D.C. DMV, on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on Wednesday.

The conflict between local and federal law has some immigrants concerned, says Martinez, and could limit the number that initially apply for one.

"There is still some relative, I think, fear from the immigrant community about what this means, and is this going to perhaps disclose their status in any way that could be used against them," she says.

Martinez also says that immigrants are worried about what could happen if they're pulled over in states that don't have similar licenses.

"There are a lot of residents that are very concerned that what if, perhaps, they're driving in Virginia or they're driving in other states where non-citizen ID is not permitted and what that would mean for them if they have to display or show this identification. As far as I can tell, there haven't been any clear answers," she says.

Still, groups like the Latin American Youth Center are working to convince immigrants that the licenses are safe and the benefits outweigh the perceived risks. It seems to be working: the DMV says that 360 immigrants have already scheduled appointments to get the licenses over the next two weeks, all but taking up the available slots.

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