Driver's Licenses

Licensing in WA and NM

Photo courtesy of Aríon Ellis Potts

Photo courtesy of Aríon Ellis Potts

Two states, Washington and New Mexico, adopted measures allowing all residents to receive driver’s licenses prior to passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005 with its federal requirements regarding licenses as a form of identification (New Mexico Legislature, 2003; National Immigration Law Center, 2014). Since their laws predate REAL ID (Washington’s was enacted in 1993 and New Mexico’s in 2003), the states issued the same licenses, with the same designs, to those with and without authorized status.

The license and non-driving IDs are the same in these states regardless of whether the applicant has a Social Security number (SSN), which is available to immigrants only if they lawfully admitted and authorized to work in the United States. The process of obtaining a license, however, is different. In both states, appointments are required to obtain a license without an SSN. In New Mexico, these are made in advance online, while in Washington, appointments are made to review documents after an initial application. In New Mexico, documents to prove identity in the absence of an SSN are required, while in Washington, applicants without a SSN (but not those with one) must prove residency in the state (New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division, 2012 [pdf]; Washington Department of Licensing, 2014).

It’s possible that the two states’ licenses won’t be accepted to take a commercial flight, enter a federal building, and for other federal purposes in the future, upon full implementation of the REAL ID Act. The two states have addressed this possibility in different ways. In New Mexico, REAL ID has been cited as a reason to repeal licenses for undocumented immigrants, which Governor Susana Martinez and Republican legislators do not support (Nikolewski, 2014). Some Democratic legislators favor rewriting the licensing policy to comply with REAL ID by adopting the two-tiered system (Monteleone & Baker, 2014). Thus far, neither side has been able to get its legislation passed.

Washington state has been less enthusiastic about the prospect of complying. In 2007, it passed a law prohibiting implementation of REAL ID without federal funding and privacy protections (Washington State Legislature, 2007). In contrast to New Mexico, it is Republican rather than Democratic legislators in Washington who are proposing adopting the two-tiered system (Washington State Legislature, 2012). The bill has never come up for a floor vote.

A tentative step toward implementation of REAL ID took place in 2008, when Washington began issuing enhanced driver’s licenses and ID cards, which require proof of lawful status, contain a radio frequency identification chip, allow passage through customs by land or sea, and meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act (Washington Department of Licensing, 2014). While the availability of these cards will not bring the state at large into compliance with REAL ID, if broadly adopted by those with SSNs it could indirectly move the state toward a tiered licensing system. Of the states that issue licenses regardless of immigration or citizenship status, Vermont also offers an enhanced driver’s license (Department of Homeland Security, n.d.).


Photo credit to Aríon Ellis Potts

About this project

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a university research center with the mission to address the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century global city, has produced these featured digital publications using the USC Media Curator, an online publishing platform designed to bring together innovative research from across the University of Southern California and beyond. This project curates research relevant for immigrant service providers on the topics of Access & Use of TechnologyAccess & Use of Financial ServicesNotario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.


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