Mayors, Immigrants Rally For Driver’s Licenses

Melissa Bailey PhotoJose Sanchez and other undocumented immigrants showed up at the Capitol to pose a late-session question: While the state awaits federal action on immigration reform, what to do now about all the immigrants driving without licenses?

(You don’t have to wait for lawmakers to make up their minds—you can cast your electronic ballot right here in the ballot box, part of the Independent’s “True Vote” experiment in citizen issues elections.)

Sanchez (pictured) was one of dozens of undocumented immigrants and advocates who trekked to the Capitol Monday to call on Connecticut to start issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Mayors from throughout the state joined them.

A native of Mexico, Sanchez said he needs a license to drive to work at a landscaping company and to shop at the grocery store. He also needs it to drive his family around.

“I need a car every day,” he said. He said he does borrow a car sometimes and drive without a license. With a license, he said, he could register a car in his name and buy insurance. That would be safer, he argued.

The press conference, organized through CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), drew support from eight mayors and a bevy of lawmakers, including New Haven’s Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey.

The event marked a renewed effort for a New Haven-based campaign that has amassed widespread support yet still faces resistance among both Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol. The campaign is being led by CONECT, a coalition of 28 churches, synagogues and mosques from New Haven and Fairfield counties. New Haven lawmakers, including Looney and state Rep. Juan Candelaria, have spearheaded the legislative effort, using research performed by the Yale Law School.

Advocates got 2,000 people to flood a public hearing at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven in March in favor of the idea. The event served as the official public hearing for legislation before the Transportation Committee. A nearly five-hour hearing passed without a single voice of opposition. Despite that public support, however, four bills that would have made undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses quietly died in committee without further public discussion.

Monday marked the beginning of a renewed legislative effort to get a law passed, even though the committee deadlines have passed. Sharkey pledged to find other legislation to which he could attach the bill, which would then be debated by the full House and Senate instead of in committee.

“I am going to do everything I can do to make sure this gets passed in the House,” Sharkey vowed.

“We are a better community when we embrace” immigrants, he said. He said the state should not “place artificial restrictions” on immigrants’ access to “the fruits our state has to offer.”

At a separate press conference Monday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supported giving undocumented immigrants the licenses.

“I don’t know what where somebody comes from has to do with safety,” Malloy said. “So I want every driver in the state of Connecticut to prove that they’re a safe driver, regardless of where they came from.”

He said if an individual from Australian visits for an extended period of time that person should get a license.

“Why do we even ask where somebody is coming from?” Malloy said. “I don’t feel obligated to do that. What I feel obligated to do is make sure that our highways and byways are being driven by people who have proven they have the skill set necessary to drive our roads.”

The Case For

Looney argued the effort would bill on the work the state did in 2011, when it extended in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant children. He couched the driver’s license issue as “a matter of public safety.”

If undocumented immigrants have access to driver’s licenses, he argued, they will have to pass driving tests, register their cars and buy insurance. The result: “more trained drivers, more insured drivers,” and less cost pushed onto insured drivers.

An estimated 54,000 Connecticut immigrants are currently barred from getting licenses because of their legal status, according to CONECT. If those drivers bought insurance, Connecticut insurance holders would save $20 million per year in insurance costs, CONECT estimated.

Other arguments for the proposal CONECT put forth:

• Police will have a way to identify drivers they pull over and check their driving records.
• Fewer drivers will flee the scene of a crash.
• Cops won’t be able to use “driving without a license” as a pretext for racial profiling, as they have in East Haven
• Don’t waste jail space on people locked up for driving without a license.
• New registrations would bring in $2 million in state revenue.
• Four states—Washington, New Mexico, Illinois and Maryland—already offer licenses to undocumented immigrants.
• “Immigrants who can drive legally will be more likely to work, spend and contribute to our economy.”

“This will grow Connecticut,” said Mayor John DeStefano, who led the state in immigrant-friendly policy when in 2007 he created a municipal identification for city residents, regardless of immigration status.

DeStefano was joined by the mayors of Hartford, New Britain, Meriden, Willimantic, New London and Bridgeport. Waterbury’s mayor also supports the initiative, according to CONECT.

“The city of Bridgeport was built on waves of immigrants,” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. He called immigrant driver’s licenses a matter of “enlightened self-interest” for cities—in part because newly registered driver’s would start paying property tax on their cars.

A Westport rabbi, a Norwalk pastor, and two New Haven preachers also spoke in support.

“Our folks just want to wait in line at the DMV like everybody else,” said Father Jim Manship, who has taken a leading role in the campaign.

In a Q & A session, WTNH’s Mark Davis (pictured) asked a question that went unaddressed in the press conference: If the issue has such widespread support, why did all the legislation die in committee?

Sharkey replied that the committee “got caught up in discussion” of other controversial legislation and didn’t get to pass the driver’s licenses bills through.

So you “ran out of time?” Davis asked.

“Yes,” Sharkey replied.

“Isn’t that an excuse” that lawmakers give when there are really other reasons that a bill died? Davis asked.

“Yes, it is,” Sharkey conceded. “But not in this case.”

The Case Against

Republican State Sen. Toni Boucher, of Wilton, later said that’s not the full story.

The committee wrapped up work on all its bills one week before its deadline, so it had plenty of time to address the matter. And Democrats enjoy a strong majority on the committee of 20 to 13, she noted. If they agreed on the topic, they could have easily passed a bill. The committee let the bills die without any deliberation after the public hearing in New Haven. By circumventing the committee process, and taking the fight to the House and Senate, where their odds at passage may be better, Boucher noted, Democrats have avoided discussion about disagreements—even those within their own party—over the bills.

“Some people don’t want to hear the fact that it’s controversial,” she said.

Boucher raised several concerns with the proposal. Giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses would cause “confusion,” she said, opening up the possibility of voter fraud and employment fraud.

Looney clarified that—like licenses currently issued to permanent residents and other non-citizens here in the U.S. legally—the licenses would specify on them that they are for driving purposes only. And a voter would have no way of getting on the voting rolls, he said, because the voting registrars would not accept the licenses as identification for voting purposes.

Boucher said she wasn’t sure that people would know enough to treat the new immigrant driver’s licenses differently from normal driver’s licenses. She said the misuse of a driver’s license could lead to violations of federal law. Boucher said she supports legislation under way in Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

She said Connecticut should not get ahead of the federal government’s process of addressing illegal immigration. “I’m uncomfortable with preempting the federal process that is in place that would decide this.” Doing so “would undermine state laws that talk about the prohibition of employment, the prohibition of voting, the access of certain services that are available only to legal citizens,” she said.

Sen. Looney said the legislation would help immigrants follow the law, not break it. He said opponents are trying to “impose an ideological view on a situation that needs to be viewed pragmatically.”

Ivan L. an undocumented driver from Wallingford, agreed. As politicians debate the issue, he’s already on the road, driving without a license. He said he needs the car to get to his job at a warehouse in New Haven. He said he already pays income taxes and property tax on his car. He’s going to keep driving illegally, he said, until the state lets him register his car and pay insurance.

Then, he said, “it will be safer for all of us.”

Case For, With Background Checks

House Minority Leader Larry Cafero said he met Monday afternoon with New Haven’s State Rep. Juan Candelaria to discuss the topic.

Cafero said he sees merit in a lot of the arguments for immigrant driver’s licenses, especially for the public safety reasons advocates have raised.

“I’m keeping an open mind” towards the licenses, he said. But he’d like to see several conditions:

• Undocumented immigrants should undergo background checks before getting licenses, to make sure they have a clean criminal record.
• The licenses should clearly state that they are not to be used for voting.
• Undocumented immigrants should have to renew their licenses every three years, instead of every six.

He said undocumented immigrants should have these special rules “unless and until they reach the point where they are legal residents” because as undocumented immigrants, they fly under government radar. They should “present themselves to the DMV on a more frequent basis” so that the government can make sure they are “obeying the rules of the road.”

Christine Stuart contributed reporting.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on April 29, 2013  8:50pm

Many votes, few comments.Is NHI test-driving a new, anonymous form of commenting????  Very interesting.

posted by: Curious on April 29, 2013  10:13pm

This voting is borked.  I was able to vote from both home and from work, probably b/c of different I addresses.

Vote early, vote often.

posted by: Atwater on April 30, 2013  8:20am

Clearly, by the poll shown above, the people of Connecticut do not favour this legislation. Hopefully the Assembly will listen and kill this bill in committee or vote it down.

posted by: robn on April 30, 2013  9:05am


I noticed the same thing but haven’t partaken. It would be interesting as a roundup, to see the IP addresses mapped and see how many out of towners piled on. Nevertheless, even if polling is restricted to local subscribers, it will always be vulnerable to special interests because its effortless to swing an online poll.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 30, 2013  9:17am

Without a representative, random sample that’s not a ‘poll’ in any meaningful sense.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 30, 2013  9:55am

I noticed that to Bill. I am thinking the reality is many in a public setting do not want to be non-PC.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 30, 2013  10:23am

oh and forgot…I am on the fence how I feel but what I do know is with out a background checks this is 100% wrong. If they have a DUI, or other motor vehicle infractions back ground checks holds them to the standards that we all abide by.

posted by: Curious on April 30, 2013  11:07am

Three questions:

If the test is in English, will that be considered discrimination?

If the test is in Spanish, are the street signs still going to be labeled in English, like they really are on the road?

Without background checks, what is to keep someone who is a non-immigrant from obtaining one?  Say for example that I get a 3rd DUI and lose my real driver’s license.  What’s to stop me from lying about my status and saying I am Juan Ortiz and getting one of these licenses?

posted by: William Kurtz on April 30, 2013  11:59am

It’s amusing how Republicans (in general; I don’t know Sen. Boucher’s individual position) clamor to ‘let the states decide’ on marriage equality, say, but use federal law as an excuse to avoid addressing the state-level problems that go along with immigration policy.

Governor Malloy and the mayors are right: the state’s primary objective here should be to increase safety and accountability on Connecticut roads. They can’t just throw up their hands in the face of federal gridlock.

posted by: 32knot on April 30, 2013  12:28pm

The poll doesn’t fit my view of the world/city/state so it must be flawed. Of course its flawed, if it isn’t reflecting a progressive/liberal philosophy it must not be correct!  It is possible that a large part of the state does not want undocumented people to have drivers licenses. I, for one fail to see how it will make the streets safer. there are plenty of licensed documented drivers who are driving unregistered/uninsured cars and creating problems so a piece of paper does not create safety.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 30, 2013  2:10pm

32knot, it’s got nothing to do with the findings, rather the methodology of non-scientific, open access polling. If the results skewed the other way, they would just as scientifically suspect.

posted by: TheMadcap on April 30, 2013  2:16pm

There’s really no reason to oppose this beyond the juvenile “Argh, they’re here illegally!” sense of the law. Which makes it hilarious because its further proof that undocumented people are doing things illegally because you won’t give them the chance to actually do things legally.

posted by: parejkoj on April 30, 2013  3:16pm

I’m with TheMadcap on this one. I can’t really see any clear downsides. Background checks before *any* drivers license is issued seem reasonable to me.

posted by: Atwater on April 30, 2013  4:01pm

License tests are available in several languages, English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. They have been for awhile.

The issue for most people who oppose this measure is not one of bigotry, it is one of legality. Allowing illegal immigrants to live, free from prosecution, is ridiculous, giving them drivers’ licenses is ludicrous. The argument that it will make our roads and highways safer is fallacious. Having a drivers’’ license does not automatically make one a safe or responsible driver. And if a non-licensed driver is in an accident or pulled over then they are subject to prosecution, etc. so the argument of accountability is moot. An unsafe driver or reckless driver will be held accountable when they are caught.

I understand the “liberals” compulsion to help these people. They are victims of our economic policies and system. But, each individual immigrant is faced with a choice of whether to follow the rules or not, the undocumented chose the latter and they must be held accountable.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 30, 2013  4:53pm

Atwater wrote,

Allowing illegal immigrants to live, free from prosecution, is ridiculous, giving them drivers’ licenses is ludicrous.

Freudian slip? Commas matter. They’re the difference between ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ and. ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’
But never mind. Since you open by saying, “The issue for most people who oppose this measure is not one of bigotry, it is one of legality” let’s start there.
Let me ask a couple of questions: should all laws be enforced all the time? Are some laws more important and their violations more egregious than others? If so, by what criteria do we order them in a hierarchy? Can there be such a thing as an unjust law and if so, what should be done about it?
These questions matter, and the but it’s illegal” argument doesn’t hold water. Somewhere there might be someone who never violates any law or rule but I have never met him. Since we’re talking about driving, do you ever exceed the posted speed limit? Roll through a stop sign? Send a quick text or make a short phone call behind the wheel? Fail to wear your seatbelt? Drive through a ‘yellowish’ light? Turn right on red where there’s a sign saying not to?
Commit any one of these infractions and you represent a greater danger than someone who’s only “crime” is crossing a border and working without ‘legitimate’ documentation. Law enforcement resources would be far better spent controlling traffic on Whalley Avenue than along the Rio Grande. Heck, I would honestly prefer people be hauled away in cuffs for using cell phones in movie theaters than for washing dishes without papers. (I’m okay with ‘enhanced interrogation’ for those people, too BTW).
A driving license doesn’t automatically make a person a safer driver, but the accountability argument is not moot. An undocumented, unlicensed, uninsured driver,is all but impossible to hold financially accountable for any damage he or she causes in a crash.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 30, 2013  9:35pm

At the risk of being impolitic - I find the rationale to be trifling, trivial and tantamount to bald faced political pandering and nothing more.

It is completely specious that licensing the members of the illegal community will create safer streets Somehow with a license, they will change their driving habits? It is not the license that makes one a safe driver, it is the driver and they’re driving with or without a license, insurance and inspections.

Equally so, there is nothing that says these newly licensed folks will carry insurance or do their inspections, or register their cars here too. All of that costs a lot of money, something that low wagers already struggle with, even without these new financial responsibilities.

Two million in state licensing funds is nothing in a 20 billion budget. Illegal voting is in fact a big concern. Looney says it will be clearly marked but we see how well that’s gone with the changes in the gun laws - why would we think this will somehow go better? Don’t count on it.

At the end of the day, this is just about politics and the rationale being used is not only in poor taste, it’s a pretty dishonest way to accomplish a long held goal - keep blurring what’s legal/illegal, keep offering more benefits of citizenship regardless of citizenship status so that over time, it doesn’t matter.

I would have more respect for Looney et al if they just said it and ignored the opposition as he usually does and gives up any patina of justification. What’s offensive is the justification which overshadows the policy.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on May 1, 2013  12:35am

William Kurtz

Your last comment analyze with reason, understanding and in some way justice for those who are in situations that is very easy to be judge. Some people demand from immigrants to be the “best of the best” the reality is very different, we all are humans and we are NOT suppose to be perfect. Thanks to point out the imperfection in many of us when we driving and using it as a good sample.

Some “legal” people got a little too opinionated when an immigrant dare to asked for the right to improve their situation in any matter, work, children, home etc. Forgetting very easy that no too long a go Black and Jewish communities struggle blood and tears to be in better situation for their new generations.

Maybe some people do not want to admit jet, That is what is happening now. Latino community is tiered of being ignore and not to be treated with more justice which is different of being equal.

For me an person with more of 3 DUI’s in their record do not deserve to have a driver licences at all, but guess what many “clean their record” and continue driving.

posted by: Statesman on May 1, 2013  7:41am

While I agree on the revenue and public safety issues and support the overall issue, I question the insurance portion of the debate. Because a person is able to obtain a license does not mean they will purchase insurance valued at maybe several thousand per year for the minimum policy limit.Moreso when we think about the limited money earned by undocumented workers. I question the projection on undocumented license holders buying insurance.

posted by: Atwater on May 1, 2013  8:26am

@William Kurtz:
Point taken on the commas. But, more to your point. Yes, there is a hirearchy of crime. Illegal immigration trumps traffic violations. Any nation has an obligation to its citizens to ensure a balance between the needs of the citizen and the needs/desires of the potential citizen. The balance is mostly economic, immigration is an economic issue. Also, potential citizens should be subject to vetting and criminal background checks. They should also be able to show an ability and willingness to work. It is not unreasonable to expect the U.S. immigration policy to ensure these goals are met. Thousands of people enter this country legally and thousands become naturalized citizens. The process is difficult and tedious, but it is necessary. Yes, there are unjust laws, but immigration laws are not unjust. Neo-liberal capitalism is unjust, worker exploitation is unjust, but none of these issues will be solved by giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. The only benefit it might produce is a slight increase in the amount of license fees paid.
Again, this is not a cloaked jab at the Latino community, at least not from me. This is a legitimate concern for all the people who have sacrificed and struggled to become legal U.S. citizens, I do not think it is fair or just to allow those who defied the law a free pass.

posted by: robn on May 1, 2013  9:25am

I think I want a T-shirt that says

Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!

posted by: parejkoj on May 1, 2013  1:29pm

Hah… “Truly an undocumented worker is going to risk prison and then deportation to put one extra vote onto a candidate. That makes sense.”

Following that logic, wouldn’t said undocumented worker have already tried to get a drivers license (risking the same), so they can… uh… something?

Anyway, I’m still not sure what citizenship/immigration has to do with having a driver’s license. A driver’s license signifies that I have proven to the state that I am minimally competent to operate a motor vehicle. Where does my immigration/citizenship status enter in to that in any way? And, as noted, many undocumented workers are currently driving without licenses: having them take the license exam seems like an unalloyed good to me.

posted by: Curious on May 1, 2013  1:41pm

William Kurtz, my comment about being “opinionated” is in direct reference back to another commenter, who I was not allowed to refer to by name.

Yes, I do believe that doing the right thing, legally, does have a higher moral standing.  Whether today’s immigration, by whatever measure, is more difficult or not, it’s still against.  The. Law.

For the record, if you really think that a few hours in the trunk of a car is worse than this, then I can’t take you seriously.

30 days of that, versus a couple hours of being stuffed in a car trunk?

posted by: William Kurtz on May 1, 2013  4:00pm

“Yes, I do believe that doing the right thing, legally, does have a higher moral standing.  Whether today’s immigration, by whatever measure, is more difficult or not, it’s still against.  The. Law.” [emphasis added]

The problem with this line of reasoning is that as history has shown time and again, “the right thing” and “The. Law.” are frequently not the same thing. To assume that they are equivalent is, in Psychology 101 terms, ‘stage four moral reasoning’, in which a person believes that the law itself is a moral principle, regardless of the nature of the law.

That’s not to call for a wholescale abandonment of the rule of law, of course; only for an acknowledgment that this is a complex issue with complex causes and complex solutions, and that different moral and legal imperatives might be in conflict. Maybe the federal government has a duty to keep out that horde of illegals massing at the gates of liberty, the state government, but once those people are here, the state government has a duty to protect the welfare of state residents.