Driver's Licenses

Implementation Stories: Providers and Advocates Share Lessons Learned

Photo Courtesy of Tim Bell

Photo Courtesy of Tim Bell

The work of making driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants depends on networks of service providers and advocates as well as on government resources and official policy. In documenting states’ progress towards providing driving privileges regardless of status, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute interviewed staff at 14 organizations in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. These places vary widely in the size of the population eligible for licensing and the requirements of their licensing laws, among other factors, and organizations from them did not share any one experience or point of view. There were common threads, however, in the ways that groups worked towards getting applicants licensed (the “models of support”), the major obstacles to implementation, and the role licensing can play in ongoing immigrant rights work.

Models of Support

Implementation advocacy: Some organizations have been engaged in lobbying licensing agencies, either formally or informally, to make licenses more accessible for more applicants and the process of obtaining them less demanding. This often has involved pushing for a greater variety of documents to be accepted to prove residency or identity, or ensuring that the provisions of the legislation are carried out in practice.

Public education: Most organizations have conducted some form of public education. This has ranged from the creation of fact sheets about the process and translations of study materials to public workshops or information sessions and train-the-trainer events. In Colorado, Licencias Para Todos/Driver’s Licenses for All has had an ESL teacher provide instruction aimed specifically at the written driving test. Many organizations also informally share information about the process or materials they have created with others in their jurisdictions.

Hands-on assistance: Some organizations also have provided their members or clients with direct assistance in getting licensed—reviewing documents, walking through the application process, or organizing trips to the DMV. In Vermont, community group Migrant Justice has facilitated immigrants getting identity documents when the Mexican consulate visits every six months. The organization has also accompanied clients to the DMV and interpreted for them. In Colorado, Compañeros immigrant resource center has organized overnight trips to the nearest DMV office, setting up a block of appointments and road tripping across the mountains. Colorado’s Licencias Para Todos/Driver’s Licenses for All also has offered both written and driving practice tests. Multiple organizations have reviewed and procured documents (especially where tax forms are required), given referrals to relevant services, and provided computers or other assistance for appointment sign-up.

Common Obstacles

Capacity issues: Several interviewees described difficulties related to their licensing agency’s limited resources, including infrastructure, technology, staff, training, and funding. In states that require licensing appointments, complaints have included that there are too few appointments for the number of applicants trying to get licensed. (An exception was Maryland, where an interviewee noted that appointments have been available almost immediately. This is likely due in part to the requirement that applicants provide an individual tax ID number and proof of having paid taxes for two years, making fewer people eligible.) In states that only offer appointments at select locations, appointments have been further limited and wait times lengthened, and applicants have had to travel farther to licensing offices. In Colorado, one interviewee noted, the nearest office offering licenses to immigrants may be more than a three-hour drive away over the mountains. In addition, service providers in a few states said that some licensing agency staff members were not familiar with the new policies, their requirements, or the protections in them, or applied them inconsistently.

Language barriers: Limits on the availability of written tests and educational materials in languages other than English and on the number of bilingual licensing staff members were seen by most interviewees as a critical barrier to the success of their jurisdictions’ licensing policies. This included concerns about the availability of documents in needed languages and the quality of the translations. Some interviewees noted that written materials have not been available in languages of smaller or more localized communities, such as the Brazilian community in Danbury, Connecticut. Respondents in Colorado and Vermont also noted that Spanish-language tests in those states tend towards Castilian Spanish, rather than the Spanish most applicants speak. Interviewees in Illinois and Connecticut said that licensing services could be more responsive to local differences in potential applicants, rather than applied as though licensees are the same across the state. Insufficient or completely absent bilingual employees at licensing locations has been another problem. And in D.C., the limited number of computers that offer the written test in languages other than English has been a concern. In addition to these language difficulties, interviewees cited the need for applicants to possess computer literacy for setting appointments, accessing driver’s manuals, or taking written tests as a potential barrier.

Lack of official communication about the policy: Interviewees in most jurisdictions agreed that more communication about the policy from licensing agencies or other government channels would be desirable: either in informing community groups and service providers about how the licensing policy has been working—how many were applying, how many receive licenses, and where the kinks in the system are—or in talking to potential applicants about the process. This was often an issue of information not being available until shortly before or, in some cases, after implementation.

Possibility that information may be available to immigration enforcement: A few interviewees talked about their concerns that licensing information might be available to immigration enforcement. In Vermont, one interviewee expressed suspicion that profiling by traffic enforcement was leading to stops, which might lead to immigration consequences. In Illinois, a service provider was concerned about applicants who had a previous fake license, since fraud might be interpreted as a crime of “moral turpitude” and therefore may serve as grounds for deportation. And in Utah, where fingerprinting and background checks are required for licensing, a service provider described the chilling effect of those requirements on the number of applications for licenses, while an advocate expressed suspicion about the coincidence of license background checks and immigration proceedings in some cases.

Scams targeting applicants: Interviewees expressed concerns about exploitative services and outright scams that have arisen around the licensing policies in their jurisdictions. These include the charging exorbitant fees for translation services in Maryland and the selling of licensing appointments in Illinois.

Role in Ongoing Immigrant Rights Work

Licensing laws present opportunities to…

                  …grow organizations’ memberships. Many organizations have provided licensing services at the same time as assessing clients or members for other kinds of relief, or signing them on as members to their organizations. For some organizations, this simply has meant being able to reach people for more services, while others have been contacting different people for the first time. For Migrant Justice in Vermont, their traditional farm worker clientele has expanded to include refugees and students. CARECEN D.C. has newly reached undocumented immigrants, since many of its services up to that point had been for the documented. And Colorado’s Compañeros has seen its member list grow with the popularity of its licensing services.

                  …build advocate connections. Driver’s license implementation has created new alliances between immigrant groups and other organizations. In Colorado, for example, small businesses eager to have their employees able to drive legally have funded group trips for those who had to travel long distances to the DMV. In Vermont, one interviewee has connected with out-of-state groups interested in lobbying for similar licensing laws. And in Illinois and D.C., interviewees said that while new relationships have not built through licensing legislation, existing ones have strengthened. Lastly, connections with the licensing agencies and their employees have been built, to varying degrees, in many states.

                  …collect testimony and build accountability. Some organizations have used the occasion of driver’s licensing hearings or cases to record stories from undocumented immigrants about what it does or could mean to have a license—as well as other aspects of their daily lives. Interviewees commented on the need to keep track of what people have said about the process as well, in order to continue to organize and maintain accountability going forward.


Photo credit to Tim Bell

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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