Driver’s license bill chance to progress immigration discussion

Imagine St. Joseph, struggling in Egypt to support his family as they awaited a time to return home. Or, think of the daily trials the Holy Family faced as they fled the dangers in their homeland. These are problems that many migrants confront on a daily basis as they try to make their way in a new land.

Many immigrant families currently in the U.S. are in a difficult position: They want to be able to fulfill their basic obligations to their family, but do not want to risk separation by being detained or deported for driving without a license.

The Catholic bishops of Minnesota strongly believe that establishing a provisional driver’s license for undocumented immigrants strengthens families and our communities (HF 97/SF 224). Allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a provisional driver’s license, if they meet certain criteria, would help immigrants maintain more stable, productive family lives – allowing them to attend church, go to school, shop for groceries, and fulfill other daily obligations with more ease and without fear of deportation.

We know that, in all likelihood, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants will ultimately remain in the United States because it is both impractical and economically unfeasible to remove them. Recognizing this reality, we must ask what can be done in the absence of congressional reform to prevent the creation of an underclass of people relegated to the margins of society.

Immigrants from across Minnesota continue to show up at community forums and at churches to share their stories. At one gathering, as reported in the online journal Daily Planet, Maria, a housecleaner, explained why a driver’s license would help her: “I came here for a better life. . . . But now I live and drive in fear. The other day I had to drive my daughter to the hospital because she was very sick with the flu, but I was driving in fear.”

In many parts of Minnesota, there is no public transportation, and undocumented persons have no ability to get to work, church, health services, or school, other than by driving illegally. Provisional driver’s licenses will not only help immigrant families, they will help foster safer driving conditions in Minnesota.

Provisional driver’s license applicants can be subjected to the same written and skills-based test that other Minnesota drivers must pass, helping to ensure safer roads. In addition, a provisional driver’s license program could increase the rate of insured drivers. Such an increase in the number of people insured could actually reduce insurance premiums, as the pool of people paying premiums would expand and the number of accidents involving uninsured drivers would reduce.

A provisional driver’s license program will also help law enforcement agencies by helping police know exactly who it is that they encounter. Crime victims and witnesses will be more willing to come forward knowing that they are not at risk of questioning or arrest for a lack of valid documentation.

The business community, particularly in rural Minnesota, is supportive of a provisional driver’s license program because it helps create a more stable workforce and fosters more contributions of immigrants to their community as consumers and taxpayers.

While a legitimate one, the concern that a provisional driver’s license would be abused is unwarranted, particularly because a provisional license can be clearly marked in a way to distinguish them from other licenses and forms of identification. Ultimately, the main objection to the proposed legislation is a concern about rewarding those seen as “lawbreakers.” But as noted above, the causes and solutions to immigration are complex, and the reality is that most immigrants are in our communities to stay.

Do we wish to help our fellow brothers and sisters have better access to basic needs and strengthen their families, or are we comfortable with the current status quo on immigration, which people on both sides of the debate agree is not working? Minnesota lawmakers need to hear from all of us that provisional driver’s license for immigrants can help move the conversation on immigration forward in Minnesota.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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