New York and New Jersey Pass Legislation Allowing Undocumented Residents to Apply for Driver’s Licenses

People wait at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles on December 18, 2019.

On Monday, lines outside New York Department of Motor Vehicles offices stretched for blocks as the so-called Green Light Law went into effect, allowing an estimated 752,000 undocumented residents to apply for state driver’s licenses. That same day, the New Jersey Legislature passed a similar bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) signed into law today, that allows the state’s undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses. Both pieces of legislation are being hailed as major wins for immigrant communities, but they also represent significant wins for sensible policy and the rule of law.

Although they lack access to a driver’s license, undocumented immigrants frequently take to the road every day—overcoming the ever-present fear of becoming an immigration enforcement target—simply to get to work, access medical services, or take their children to school. Given that reality, state officials are faced with the option of either continuing the status quo or reforming their laws to properly regulate this conduct and ensure that every driver on the road is able to go through the licensure process. The benefits of providing driver’s licenses for all residents regardless of immigration status are broad: safer roads, greater access to financial and public services, and a higher number of insured drivers.

By choosing to make driver’s licenses available to all residents, New York and New Jersey—like many states before them—have taken an important step toward restoring the rule of law by correctly bringing conduct that is taking place outside the law within a well-functioning regulatory system. This is a small but significant example at the state level of how the United States can reform its laws to better align with reality and establish an immigration system that is fair, humane, and workable.