For undocumented immigrants, one of the biggest obstacles to living a mainstream life in the United States is the inability to obtain a driver’s license. This is troublesome for a number of reasons. In most parts of the country, it is nearly impossible to travel any distance without driving since public transportation is often unreliable and time-consuming. Other alternatives, such as walking and biking are only viable in good weather and for relatively short distances. Relying on others for transportation is not only undependable but requires a degree of indebtedness many travelers want to avoid.
A study by Temple University shows that laws preventing undocumented immigrants from holding a driver's licenses interferes with basic human rights. Without the ability to drive themselves to interviews or employment, most potential jobs are hopelessly out of reach. Moreover, children’s education is often compromised, and it becomes difficult to deal with medical emergencies. Inability to travel by car negatively impacts economic mobility, safety, and self-worth, and exacerbates the ever-present fear of deportation.
Immigrants who drive are, in some locations, pulled over more frequently than other drivers due of ethnic profiling, and are often forced to pay heavy fines. Not only do the fines have a negative economic impact on those already struggling financially, but such drivers, if found guilty, may have their licenses suspended indefinitely. This creates far-reaching problems for these individuals if and when they do obtain green cards and apply for driver's licenses. Repeat offenses can result in jail time which will adversely affect any attempt to obtain documentation through the legal process.
On the plus side, a valid driver’s license issued in the driver’s home country can be used legally in the United States. Some states require an International Driver’s Permit, a multi-language document. This permit should be issued by the applicant’s home country. Scam artists who sell false permits in the United States, however, are all too common. Immigrants need to be cautioned to be aware of such costly and dangerous swindles.
Once the driver's license from a driver’s home country expires, the individual is expected to either apply for a driver’s license in his or her state of residence or stop driving altogether. Currently, only 11 states and Washington DC allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a license. These states are California, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Vermont. Each of these states has its own rules and regulations for individuals obtaining licenses without a social security number. Local attorneys are in the best position to provide guidance about current regulations and should always be consulted for up-to-date helpful advice.