FAQ: New Jersey driver’s licenses for immigrants here illegally
Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that will expand driver's licenses to immigrants living in the United States illegally -- a measure supporters say will make the roads safer, but opponents argue amounts to rewarding lawbreakers.
What exactly does the new legislation do?
It creates two classes of license. One is compliant with federal REAL ID standards, and will be the only sort of license that can be used to fly on a plane or enter a federal facility starting in October of 2020. Applicants for those licenses will have to prove they have a legal right to live in the U.S. and New Jersey.
The other is a standard license -- similar to the ones most NJ residents have now -- and will be available to all Garden State residents, regardless of immigration status.
The legislation also raises the price of getting a REAL ID license from the current cost, though it offers a temporary break to people renewing their current licenses. New Jersey only recently began offering REAL ID-compliant licenses, and there's a months-long backlog of appointments.
So are these new licenses specifically for immigrants here illegally?
No -- anyone can apply for a standard license under the new requirements, though immigrants living here illegally are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries of the expansion.
When does the legislation take effect?
The law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2021, but it’s possible the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission could begin issuing standard basic licenses before then.
What will a person need to present to get a standard license? Does an applicant still have to show '6 points' of identification?
Sue Fulton, the Motor Vehicle Commission's chief administrator, told state legislators this month all applicants will be required to present multiple forms of identification as well as utility bills and bank statements to establish proof of residency.
“We cannot and will not issue anyone an identity credential such as a driver's license without substantial proof of identity," Fulton said. “We reject the notion that licensing without regard to immigration status means we would hand out ID cards without proof of identity, age and residence.”
She said "hundreds of thousands" of NJ residents can't prove they live here legally, but still have documentation, including passports, visas and birth certificates from their home countries.
Under revisions to the license bill made shortly before legislators adopted it, applicants for the new standard license would have to provide just one document proving their New Jersey residency, rather than the two currently required.
The 6-point system used for providing identity to get a traditional license, in which different documents carry different point values, would specifically apply to the new licenses as well. Any use of altered or fake documents could lead to a fine of $500 and 60 days in county jail.
What's the justification for letting immigrants here illegally get driver's licenses?
Fulton told the state Senate Transportation Committee on Dec. 12 many immigrants are already driving without a license because they can’t get one.
"In my view, our roads are safer when our drivers are trained, tested, licensed and insured," she said.
An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report found over a two-year period, nearly 20% of fatal crashes involved unlicensed or invalidly licensed drivers.
Fulton also argued an unlicensed driver is more likely to flee the scene of a crash, complicating police efforts.
And the arguments against it?
Morris County resident Philip Rizzo, a minister in Hudson County, told legislators this month the new licenses could create a situation in which people who are not legally in the country are brought to New Jersey to set them up with identification. He said people he knows have already done that, in Maryland.
“I think this bill is reckless in that way. It’s not thinking out the consequences of the doors that will be opened up to a black market to help induce people coming to this state under false pretenses,” Rizzo said.
Some lawmakers also expressed concerns the licenses could allow people living here illegally an avenue to vote.
So ... does the new driver's license law let non-citizens register to vote?
Fulton told legislators that shouldn’t happen.
Driver's license applicants are registered to vote unless they opt out. But they're first asked multiple questions on a signature pad. They must verify they're old enough to vote, that they're U.S. citizens and that they're eligible to vote, Fulton said.
“That’s how we do voter registration in the state of New Jersey, whether it’s at the county clerk’s office or at the Shop-Rite when they’re registered people to vote,” Fulton said. “The individual verifies under penalty of perjury.”
She noted the MVC has issued licenses and IDs to non-citizens, to people to young to vote and to out-of-state residents for years. Last year, the MVC issued 50,000 licenses or IDs to non-citizens. She said there isn't a single documented case of a non-citizen, underage person or out-of-state resident voting or attempting to in New Jersey.
At hearings this month, Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, argued MVC employees should have a more active role in verifying an applicant's information.
And some legislators say they're not convinced. Despite Fulton's assurances, Assemblyman Hal Wirths, a Republican who voted against the bill, told New Jersey 101.5's Steve Trevelise "it's not black and white the way I interpret it ... and people are very vague on answering it."
And does the new system reward people who break the law?
It depends who you ask. Peterson argued at hearings this month the new law does just that.
Will the state turn information on driver's license applicants over to the feds?
Information submitted in an application for the new standard license could not be shared with the federal government without a court order.
Unlike with the Real ID-compliant licenses, copies of the documents provided would not be retained by the state.
Do other states let people living in the country without authorization drive?
Not counting New Jersey, 13 states and the District of Columbia permit immigrants without legal status to obtain drivers licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Who voted to support the law?
The vote was largely along party lines, both in committee and before the state Senate and Assembly, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing it.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law Dec. 19.
-- Based on previous reporting by Michael Symons, David Matthau and the Associated Press