7 reasons to support licenses for undocumented drivers

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering whether to enable all drivers, regardless of immigration status, to obtain state driver’s licenses. Here are seven reasons to support such a policy for Massachusetts.

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1. You care about child health

When undocumented parents can obtain driver’s licenses, it grants them access to many necessities. They are better able to seek and take their children to the doctor or the dentist. And when they do seek these medical services, they tend to receive better care possibly because they are not stigmatized over presumed immigration status.

These improvements are even more pronounced among Latinx families, who often face discrimination based on presumed immigration status.

Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented parents can also improve the mental health of their children (many of whom are documented or U.S. citizens). Many studies show that fear of a parent’s arrest by immigration authorities can significantly harm a child or teenager’s mental health and school performance.

In one study, when youth began to realize the implications of their family members’ immigration status, they described it as “waking up to a nightmare.” That study showed this realization can effectively erase all the benefits that education typically has on mental health.[i]

Further, these children will join Massachusetts’ workforce in the years to come. Setting them up for success will help our economy in the long term.

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2. You care about road safety

Roads are safer when all drivers are tested, licensed, and insured. Many undocumented drivers in Massachusetts have no way to get to work or school except to drive. Licensing these drivers ensures they are tested for vision and basic knowledge of road rules.

Further, licensing undocumented drivers could help save your own pocketbook. When California began licensing drivers without status, not-at-fault drivers avoided $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses. States like Utah and New Mexico also saw dramatic drops in their rates of uninsured drivers when they began licensing undocumented drivers.

Undocumented drivers tend to be conscientious drivers,[ii] but when a crash does occur, they are more likely to wait for police to respond when they are licensed. When California began licensing all drivers regardless of immigration status, it saw a 10 percent decrease in hit-and-run crashes.

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3. You want a strong economy

Massachusetts has a well-educated undocumented population — more than a third of undocumented adults in Massachusetts hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.[iii]

Some of this potential likely is going untapped because workers are unable to drive to better jobs. This means they are not earning at their full potential, which limits their families’ spending on local businesses and in the economy.

Massachusetts’ dependence and your dependence on immigrant labor is inescapable. The state has long depended on international immigration to maintain its workforce and its economy. Allowing those without documented status to earn and spend at their full potential is good economics.

In the time of COVID-19, this has become even more evident. Foreign-born and undocumented workers are more likely to work in essential jobs than the general workforce.[iv] About 55,000 of these workers — who serve us food, stock our grocery shelves, and care for our children — risk losing jobs or losing pay. Another 16,400 are at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and — because they cannot claim financial relief — have no choice but to go to work.[v]

4. You want the state to generate the revenue it needs

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Granting licenses to those without documented status would help boost the state’s coffers. In the current pandemic-induced recession, the state needs additional revenue to keep schools running, maintain roads, and provide relief to those without work.

Licensing undocumented drivers could generate about $5 million per year in tax revenue from motor fuel taxes and taxes on car-related purchases, according to pre-COVID estimates. On top of this, the state could generate $6 million in revenue from fees on licenses, inspections, and other services.[vi]

Undocumented taxpayers already pay a lot of state and local taxes — about $184.6 million per year.[vii] Meanwhile, they are unable to access benefits that their tax dollars pay for, like Social Security or Medicare. These tax contributions will likely rise if undocumented workers are able to get licensed and drive more freely.

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5. You care about racial equity

Traffic stops are a primary way for law enforcement to arrest immigrants, detain them, and potentially deport them. Research shows these traffic stops tend to target Black and Latinx people, who are racially profiled for presumed undocumented status.[viii]

This can further put Black and Latinx families behind — when parents are separated from their children, unable to work, or on the hook for fines and fees.

The federal government has increasingly relied on local police and sheriffs to carry out its immigration enforcement responsibilities. To do this, local law enforcement often uses racial profiling (through “pretextual stops,” in which officers detain people they find suspicious). A study found that when Tennessee’s Davidson County began implementing an immigration enforcement program, arrest rates for unlicensed Hispanic drivers increased from 23.3 percent to 49.4 percent.[ix]

Allowing all drivers to obtain licenses, regardless of immigration status, would help reduce opportunities for racist acts, detention, and deportation of immigrants of color. It also would stop penalizing immigrants of color for driving to work or taking their children to the doctor.

6. You want to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons

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Traffic stops are a major way that undocumented people to get picked up by authorities — often with traumatic and harmful economic results for them and their families. Licensing undocumented drivers will help reduce some such interactions and lessen the population — and risk of COVID-19 spread — in detention facilities.

Since the start of COVID-19, many have sounded the alarm on how dangerous this virus can be in prisons — where physical distancing is difficult and residents often don’t have access to adequate cleaning supplies or protective equipment. Immigration detention is no different.[x]

By mid-June, thousands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees in 61 facilities around the country had tested positive for COVID-19.[xi] Experts note that lack of testing means that the actual numbers are likely higher.

Most people being held in ICE detention in Massachusetts present no risk to community safety. About 70 percent of those in ICE detention in Massachusetts either have no criminal conviction or were charged with minor offenses.

7. You don’t want to ride a crowded bus or train during COVID-19

Public transit is a vehicle for mobility and access to opportunities. During COVID-19, however, people are hesitant to ride crowded buses or subway trains.

Until transit officials devise a good system to keep riders and staff safe, driving will be essential to safely keeping the wheels of the economy turning. For those unable to get licenses because of their immigration status, this presents a barrier.

Even those who do not need to ride public transit likely will come into contact with people who do. Licensing all drivers, regardless of immigrant status, can help reduce crowding on public transit during COVID-19.

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This research was funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of MassBudget alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.


[i] Roberto G. Gonzales, “Learning to Be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Legal Contexts in the Transition to Adulthood,” American Sociological Review (2011), p.615, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0003122411411901

[ii] Deborah Gonzalez et al., “A Legal and Policy Analysis of Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Rhode Islanders,” Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law (June 2016), pp.21–22, https://www.rwu.edu/sites/default/files/downloads/lpi/drivers-license_report-legal.pdf

[iii] Monique Ching, “Driver’s licenses for immigrants without status — how would it affect Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (March 17, 2020), https://massbudget.org/reports/pdf/DriversLic4briefs_FINAL.pdf

[iv] Donald Kerwin et al., “US Foreign-Born Essential Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic,” Center for Migration Studies New York, https://cmsny.org/publications/us-essential-workers/ ; Hye Jin Rho et al., “A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries,” Center for Economic and Policy Research (April 7, 2020), https://cepr.net/a-basic-demographic-profile-of-workers-in-frontline-industries/

[v] Monique Ching, “Tens of thousands of undocumented, essential workers at risk of lost jobs, lost pay, exposure to COVID-19,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (June 5, 2020), https://massbudget.org/reports/pdf/MAundocessentials_20200604_FINAL.pdf

[vi] Monique Ching, “Driver’s licenses for immigrants without status — how would it affect Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (March 17, 2020), p.8 https://massbudget.org/reports/pdf/DriversLic4briefs_FINAL.pdf

[vii] Monique Ching, “Driver’s licenses for immigrants without status — how would it affect Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (March 17, 2020), p.8 https://massbudget.org/reports/pdf/DriversLic4briefs_FINAL.pdf

[viii] Monique Ching, “Driver’s licenses for immigrants without status — how would it affect Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (March 17, 2020), pp.3, 7 https://massbudget.org/reports/pdf/DriversLic4briefs_FINAL.pdf

[ix] Mai Thi Nguyen and Hannah Gill, “Interior immigration enforcement: The impacts of expanding local enforcement authority,” Urban Studies (January 8, 2015), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0042098014563029

[x] Parsa Erfani et al., “A Systematic Approach To Mitigate The Spread Of COVID-19 In Immigration Detention Facilities,” Health Affairs (June 17, 2020), https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200616.357449/full/ ; Sasha Abramsky, “ICE Detention Centers Are Covid-19 Hotbeds,” The Nation (June 19, 2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/covid-jails-ice-detention/ ; John Hudak and Christine Stenglein, “As COVID-19 spreads in ICE detention, oversight is more critical than ever,” Brookings (May 14, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/05/14/as-covid-19-spreads-in-ice-detention-oversight-is-more-critical-than-ever/

[xi] Donald Kerwin, “Immigrant Detention and COVID-19: How the US Detention System Became a Vector for the Spread of the Pandemic,” Center for Migration Studies New York (Updated June 16, 2020), https://cmsny.org/publications/immigrant-detention-covid/


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