Everyone benefits if undocumented immigrants can legally drive in New Jersey, advocates claim

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CHERRY HILL — Roads will be safer if the cause that brought 30 people to Christ Our Light on the evening of Feb. 4 — arriving by car as the parish center is located on busy Kings Highway — is successful.

In addition, while New Jersey citizens would not be paying higher premiums, insurance companies will pull in millions of dollars. The state of New Jersey, too, will receive additional millions in revenue. But those are not the benefits the group prayed for when they gathered. The goal of this interfaith group, Multi-Faith Action for Social Justice, is currently concerned with is expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented migrants and other groups who cannot legally drive.

They are motivated by a sense of justice, and their compassion for residents who need to get to work and go grocery shopping, and to get their children to school and doctor’s appointments.

A loose group dominated by women, many of the members of the group are from local Catholic parishes, but they are also Jews, Muslims, Protestants and members of the local Unitarian Universalist Church. They have been meeting for more than a year, and they are hopeful that New Jersey will become the 13th state to allow all residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license.

While the Cherry Hill group became involved with the issue because of their religious beliefs, there is a practical side of the debate. Jorge Torres of Faith in New Jersey, who was a guest speaker at the Feb. 4 meeting, argued that roads will be safer if all drivers have licenses – meaning they have been granted a license after passing a written test and a road test. He pointed out that his father was an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador and therefore did not have a license. He drove but — without being taught the rules of the road in America — “he drove like he drove in Ecuador,” Torres said.

Many unlicensed drivers have registration and insurance that they have been able to purchase in other states. A NJ license would keep those revenues in the state.

New Jersey Policy Perspective, a non-profit research organization, estimates that if access to driver’s licenses is expanded, insurance companies would take in about $223 million in additional premiums each year. Also that the State of New Jersey would take in $11.7 million in new revenue from fees paid by new driver’s license applicants and license renewals.

“Since auto insurance is compulsory in New Jersey, universal driver’s licenses would allow for thousands of drivers to obtain auto insurance coverage, thereby reducing the number of uninsured drivers, a cost that is currently borne by all insured motorists,” NJPP states on its website. “In Utah, which has allowed undocumented immigrants to drive legally since 1999, the uninsured motorist rate dropped by 20 percent.” NJPP also cites studies indicating that license expansion has led to a “significant decline” of hit-and-run accidents in California and a 23 percent decrease in traffic fatalities in New Mexico.

The statewide campaign to expand driving privileges in New Jersey — a grassroots organizing effort with petitions, postcard campaigns, calls to contact legislators and public rallies — has been going on for years. In 2006, legislation was introduced to allow all New Jerseyans to be trained, tested, licensed and insured. It failed.

It was more than four years ago that activists for the cause walked two miles in the heat of summer from Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden to City Hall to urge City Council to pass a resolution in support of state legislation to expand driver eligibility to the undocumented.

The issue seems to revolve around a familiar political battle. “Supporters said that licensing immigrants would make the roads safer by educating drivers and making them likelier to carry insurance,” the New York Times reported in 2015 when Colorado, a state with a high Hispanic population, began access to licenses for the undocumented. “Opponents said it would encourage illegal immigration and serve as a faulty patch for a broken federal immigration system.”

Law enforcement groups publicly backed the driver’s license bill in Colorado, the Times reported.

New Jersey advocates are hopeful that the right time may have come for the Garden State. Let’s Drive NJ claims that “registered and likely voters in New Jersey” support legislation by a 2-1 margin, that newly proposed legislation has more than 20 sponsors, and that Gov. Murphy has signaled he is willing to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The group that meets at Christ Our Light, Multi-Faith Action for Social Justice, is currently putting its efforts into encouraging people to sign petitions and contact their legislators to get an Assembly bill, A4743, out of committee and to the floor for a vote.

The bill requires applicants to provide proof of identity, date of birth, and residency in New Jersey, in addition to passing the road test, to get a license. The driver’s license created under this policy will include “Federal Limits May Apply” language indicating that it may not lawfully be used for federal identification purposes, such as flying, voting, or entering certain Federal Buildings.

Let’s Drive NJ summarizes its position this way: “Allowing all New Jerseyans who can prove their identity and in-state residence to be trained, licensed, and insured would make the state safer, help the state’s economy and increase the wellbeing of families.”