Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It's long overdue, but this may be the year Minnesota again allows undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.
A measure that's moving through the Legislature would wisely allow a person to obtain a driver's license or state identification card without showing proof of citizenship or lawful presence in the U.S. Known as "Driver's Licenses for All," the bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Maria Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul.
It would sensibly reverse a 2003 rule change by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. His administration banned undocumented people from getting driver's licenses in the name of national security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Many groups, including immigrant advocates and representatives of business, agriculture, faith and labor groups, support the needed change. During a House committee hearing earlier this month, they testified that immigrant and refugee communities are critical to the state's economy and that expanding access to driver's licenses is a practical step in addressing the state's workforce shortage.
During that same hearing, some immigrants told emotional stories about having to choose between driving illegally and risking arrest or deportation or being unable to get to work or get their loved ones to school, jobs or appointments. They said the problem is especially difficult for those in suburbs and rural areas that lack public transit.
Law enforcement representatives also weighed in. Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka and St. Paul Police Commander Shari Falkowski endorsed the bill, arguing that it would improve road safety. They contend that allowing the undocumented to get licenses would reduce hit-and-run crashes and help officials better track repeat offenders.
"The reality is a majority of these parties are probably driving anyway for work purposes, and to have them properly licensed with proper training increases the safety for everyone involved," Soyka said.
During the past decade, State Patrol officials have reported that unlicensed drivers are at least twice as likely to be involved in fatal accidents as drivers with valid licenses. That's partly because the unlicensed have never taken driver's ed or had to learn the rules of the road.
Some Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the undocumented could use their licenses to vote. But in a letter of support for the Senate version of the bill, state Secretary of State Steve Simon said the measure would not affect systems related to voting. He wrote that under current voting laws, driver's licenses are not used to provide evidence of citizenship.
If the change is approved, Minnesota will join 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Research has shown that driver's licenses for residents without legal status led to fewer hit-and-run crashes. And University of Minnesota study found that two-thirds of unauthorized Hispanic immigrants who commute drove to work without a license in the U.S. That study recommends supporting legislation like the proposed state bill to improve public safety.
The driver's license dilemma is one of many harmful results of America's seriously flawed immigration policies. Millions of undocumented workers and their families are in the U.S. (an estimated 90,000 in Minnesota alone) primarily to work. Despite it being illegal to hire them, American companies employ them, and the Internal Revenue Service assigns them tax ID numbers and accepts tax payments. America benefits from their work, spending and the taxes they pay.
Many undocumented immigrants are already on our roads. They should be subject to the same tests, rules and insurance requirements as other drivers.
Both the House and Senate are expected to take floor votes early next week. The Legislature and governor should, at long last, do the right thing this year — approve issuing driver's licenses for the undocumented.