Preventing Undocumented Immigrants from Obtaining State Driver’s Licenses and IDs Hurts All of Michigan 

Joel and I fell in love while attending high school in Mexico City, where we were both born and raised. Every night he would tell me stories about our future together to help me fall asleep as he rubbed my ice-cold feet with his to keep them warm. Yes, we were that couple.  

I knew we were going to grow old together as a married couple, overcoming obstacles as a team. And we faced many. In 2000, poverty, lack of healthcare, and cancer in my family forced us to migrate to the United States without documentation. Nine years after coming to Michigan, when our daughter was 12 years old and our son 5, our family was ripped apart. It happened because Joel, like all immigrants without documentation in this state, was prohibited from driving legally. 

Before 2008, undocumented immigrants in Michigan were able to get a driver’s license and state ID.  Then the state Legislature changed the law, taking that option away from people like us. With public transportation lacking, Joel had to keep driving to remain working and supporting our family. 

Though it is too late for my family, Michigan lawmakers recently introduced a packages of bills that would restore a right that was taken away and give families a chance to stay together, instead of being torn apart because they are barred from obtaining driver’s licenses. 

A Family Fractured 

Our nightmare began with a phone call on a February morning in 2009. On the other end of the line was my husband. As soon as I heard his voice, fearful and quivering, I knew something was wrong. 

“I am in the Oakland County Jail,” he said. “I got pulled over, and because my license had expired, they arrested me.” 

I remember my heart both pounding and sinking. There was so much I wanted to say and ask him. Instead, I froze, paralyzed by the thought he would be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported. 

I sat there with the phone pressed against my ear long after he had hung up, thinking, “How are we ever going to survive this?”  

Our son’s first day of kindergarten was approaching, and in a few years our daughter would be graduating high school. How could we celebrate those and other milestones without Joel?  

The answer, we learned, was that we’d have to find some way to continue living without him, which is what we’ve had to do. Just as I had feared, jail officials did turn him over to ICE, and he was sent back to Mexico. In the 12 years that have passed since then, we haven’t seen him once.  

Because Joel was unable to renew his driver’s license, my children have had to grow up without their dad in their lives, and I’ve had to struggle to care for them alone, without my partner.  

The toll that’s taken on all of us has been terrible to endure. 

Living Without ID 

During the pandemic, most undocumented workers have been labeled “essential. ” Undocumented essential workers keep our state running, but at a terrible cost. Not only are we losing our loved ones to COVID; because we are blocked from getting a driver’s license, we continue losing them to deportation as well.  

How are essential workers supposed to get to work if we are not legally allowed to drive? How will we get vaccinated without an ID? 

Many people don’t realize how much they need a state ID until they don’t have one. A few years back, my son caught a terrible cold. I woke up to check on him in the middle of the night and noticed he was drenched in sweat, unable to sleep. I drove to a drug store that was open 24 hours to buy some cold medicine that would help him sleep. I was asked for a “valid” identification. Because my expired license did not count, I was refused service. I had to call my friend to come buy  over-the-counter medication for my son at three in the morning. 

That’s just one of many examples I can share from personal experience of why everyone – including undocumented immigrants – needs a driver's license or state ID. 

“It’s time to update Michigan’s laws with 16 other states and Washington, D.C. to allow undocumented residents … the ability to obtain a driver’s license or state identification card,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang, who authored one of the pieces of legislation. “These bills are common sense because they will enhance road safety, grow our agricultural economy and protect human dignity.” 

Making Michigan More Prosperous for Everyone 

Fortunately, Michigan now has the opportunity to make life better, not just for me and my family, but for every immigrant Michigander. For that to happen, the Legislature needs to pass the recently introduced Drive SAFE (Safety, Access, Freedom and the Economy) bill package. Drive SAFE would require the Secretary of State to issue driver’s licenses to people who satisfy all other requirements for obtaining a license, regardless of their immigration status, and would do the same for state identification cards.  

There is lots of support for Drive SAFE’s passage in the immigrant community and the broader community. Without it, what happened to my family – and to many others who are not documented – will continue.  

There are plenty of reasons to support passage of this bill package. For one thing, it will make our roads safer for everyone.  

That point is highlighted in a new report titled Taking Our Foot Off the Brakes: Why Driver’s Licenses for All Makes Sense, released by the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP). 

“20,000 more Michigan drivers would be insured and have passed driver’s tests” if the legislation passes, according to the report. “To register a passenger vehicle in Michigan, one must have auto insurance. Roads are safer and accidents are resolved more smoothly when more drivers have passed a standardized driving test and are insured. 

The report also details the financial benefits passing the legislation would have for the state. 

“Reinstating driver’s licenses for immigrant residents would boost state revenue by $13.5 million in the first three years and contribute $12 million in recurring revenue  …” the report estimates. “Over the course of 10 years, this policy would generate nearly $100 million for the state of Michigan. “ 

Whatever your motivation, we are asking for your help making Michigan a more safe, prosperous and, frankly, humane place for everyone. You can start by visiting the website Drive Michigan Forward and sign up to take action. 

My family and I will continue trying to heal from the lasting scars left by the current, cruel legislation as we look forward to the day our governor signs the Drive SAFE bills into law. It is a day that can’t come too soon. No one should have to endure so much heartache and trauma because a driver’s license is beyond their reach.