Allowing all Michigan residents to obtain driver’s licenses – including immigrants without documentation – benefits the entire state 

By: Resilda Karafili 

As someone who came to the United States at 9 years old as an undocumented immigrant, I know firsthand how much hardship is endured by people prevented from getting a driver’s license because of their immigration status.  

Because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan, I’ve also experienced the life-altering impact being able to drive legally can have. 

All my experiences have taught me this: Michigan will be a safer, more prosperous place if everyone – including all immigrants without documentation – can access driver’s licenses. 

A native of Albania, I was sent by my parents to live with my grandparents in Michigan in 2000. My homeland was just emerging from a bloody civil war and remained a dangerous place. My family wanted me to be safe and have as bright a future as possible. I did all I could to fulfill that promise, working hard in high school and getting accepted to the University of Michigan, where I majored in psychology, sociology, and political science. 

Attending the university wasn’t easy. Because I lacked documentation, I was unable to obtain any financial assistance and had to pay the much higher tuition required of foreign students. Adding to that immense financial burden was the fact that I had to live on campus rather than make the short commute from my home because there was no public transportation available. I couldn’t get a driver’s license, and there was no way I’d get behind the wheel of a car without one. 

As I contemplated my future, I felt hopeless. Despite being near graduation with a triple major and a nearly perfect GPA, I was unsure where I could work without employment authorization, which I couldn’t obtain because of my immigration status. I felt that all my hard work and the financial contribution of my family was for nothing. 

Fortunately, as I prepared to graduate, the trajectory of my life dramatically improved because of two things. First, the implementation of the DACA program in 2012 allowed DREAMers like me to remain in this country and find work without constantly fearing deportation.  

The other was a 2012 lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil rights organizations that included the ACLU of Michigan. I was one of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, which challenged the state’s policy of denying driver’s licenses to immigrant youth covered by DACA. Within months of that suit being filed, the Michigan Secretary of State reversed course and allowed DREAMers to obtain driver’s licenses. 

In a flash, a new world opened up to me. 

People who have always been able to drive have no idea how difficult life is without a license. I felt caged. Finally getting a license was like being handed a key to get out of that cage. I reveled in the new-found sense of freedom being able to drive provided. 

I ultimately found work at a firm specializing in immigration law, first as a legal assistant then moving up to become a senior paralegal and office manager. It is a place I love working at, but I would have never landed here if I didn’t have a license that allowed me to make the commute. 

I was also able to help care for my ill mother, who had immigrated to this country and become a citizen, and my U.S. citizen stepfather when he was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took his life. Without the ability to drive, they would have had no way to get to and from their many doctor and hospital appointments. If I didn’t have my license, I don’t know what they would have done. 

Today, I still work at the law firm and now also attend law school at the University of Michigan. Life is moving in a good direction. I no longer feel hopeless. Instead, I’m looking forward to becoming a lawyer, something I had dreamt about for decades. 

I can say with certainty I wouldn’t be where I am today without a driver’s license, and am profoundly grateful to everyone who helped make that possible, including the ACLU of Michigan. I feel like the sun is shining down on me, and have the ACLU to thank for that.  

But there’s a large, dark cloud that continues to hang over all of Michigan. Although I can legally drive, there are tens of thousands of people without documentation in this state who are barred from being able to do something so essential.  

It wasn’t always that way. Until 2008, all Michiganders had the ability to obtain a driver’s license after passing a driver’s test and meeting other requirements. Then the Michigan Legislature changed the law, and life immediately became infinitely harder in immigrant communities throughout the state. 

This change made us all less safe and less prosperous. 

In “Taking Our Foot Off the Brakes” – a 2019 report produced by the nonprofit Michigan League of Public Policy – the benefits of allowing driver’s licenses for all residents are spelled out. A big one is this:  

“Over the course of three years, 55,000 Michiganders would apply for a driver’s license, leading to 20,000 new vehicle purchases. These new licenses and vehicles would boost state revenue by $13.5 million and contribute $12 million in recurring revenue, $9 million of which would be from sales and gas taxes related to vehicle ownership. Over the course of 10 years, this policy would generate nearly $100 million for the state of Michigan.” 

In addition to generating revenue, changing the law would also increase safety. 

“To register a passenger vehicle in Michigan, one must have auto insurance,” the report notes.  “Roads are safer for everyone and accidents are resolved more smoothly when more drivers have passed a standardized driving test and are insured.” 

It is hard to fathom why, given all these benefits, our lawmakers still haven’t embraced a change where everybody doesn’t just win, but we all win big. Whatever the motivation, failing to expand access to driver’s licenses hurts Michiganders.

To address the problem, two pieces of legislation designated the “Drive SAFE” bills (HB 4835 and HB 4836) were introduced in the Michigan House earlier this year. Sadly, those bills have yet to be heard in committee. We can ill afford to miss this opportunity to do what 17 other states have already done and make driver’s licenses accessible to every resident. 

Although I found a way to survive without a license as a student, many people are compelled to drive – whether they have a license or not – because they have families to provide for and need a car to get to work in a state that is sorely lacking in public transit. 

Thanks to the work of many, I woke up one morning to a world opened wide because of the newfound ability to obtain something as basic as a driver’s license. Every Michigander should be able to share in the same freedom and opportunity to thrive.