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OP-ED: Expand access to driver's licenses to all residents

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In New Jersey, having a car is essential to fully participating in the economy. No matter where you live in the Garden State — with very few exceptions — driving is necessary to get to work, pick kids up from school and take them to the doctor, shop for groceries and complete all the other errands that fill up the day. The ability to drive legally and safely is central to a vibrant New Jersey economy where everyone can work, get around and provide for themselves and their families.

For most New Jersey residents this is not an issue as there are few barriers to getting trained, tested, insured and on the road. But for some residents who do not have all of the documents required under New Jersey’s six-point identification system, driving is out of reach and completing daily tasks can be a major struggle.

This is the everyday reality for the approximately 466,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey who are of driving age. These residents who live, work and send their kids to school in New Jersey often have to choose between not fully participating in their communities or risk driving without a license.

Since driving is a necessity to getting around in New Jersey, many undocumented residents still get behind the wheel and risk expensive tickets, detention and even deportation. This separation of parents from their families — for driving — is a burden on all of us, from the child who no longer has a parent to support them, to the business owner who loses an experienced employee, to the businesses on Main Street who lose a loyal customer.

Having more licensed drivers would ensure more residents are accountable for their driving record — and insured should they get into an accident.

 

Fortunately for lawmakers, this issue can be resolved by expanding access to driver’s licenses to all residents, regardless of their immigration status. New Jersey would become the 13th state in the nation to enact such a policy, and doing so would not only increase public safety as more drivers become trained, tested and insured, but also strengthen the state’s economy and increase the well-being of New Jersey’s immigrant communities.

Based on the experience of these other states, New Jersey Policy Perspective estimates that half of eligible New Jerseyans — 233,000 — would receive a license within the first three years of implementation. Having more licensed drivers would ensure more residents are accountable for their driving record — and insured should they get into an accident.

Expanded access to driver’s licenses also removes the incentive for undocumented drivers to flee the scene of an accident, as it is less likely they would be detained or deported. States like California that have already enacted similar policies have experienced notable declines in hit-and-run and fatal accidents.

In addition to safer roads, expanding access to driver’s licenses would also result in more money being spent in local economies, as immigrants who can drive legally are more likely to work and find better jobs. This increase in purchasing power translates to more spending on goods, services and housing, having a ripple effect throughout the state economy.

For business owners, the increase in prospective workers who are able to drive means they can draw from a stronger pool of applicants when hiring. Expanded access to driver’s licenses would also support the 33,000 entrepreneurs in the state who are undocumented and own businesses with a combined income of $622 million and employ thousands of other New Jersey residents.

Undocumented immigrants are part of our communities, intertwined in our daily lives. Many of them are parents of our children’s friends, others are our neighbors, and they need the ability to drive safely, a change that will protect and benefit all New Jerseyans.

Erika Nava is a policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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