N.J. considers driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants

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People listen to testimony about a pending bill that would allow residents who cannot prove they are in the United States legally to obtain a New Jersey driver's license during the assembly's homeland security committee at the statehouse Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Trenton, N.J.

TRENTON - Filing into the Statehouse on Monday amid a stream of people advocating for driver's licenses for immigrants who are in the country illegally, Yamina Canepa, 17, described the challenges faced by her mother, who is undocumented and unable to drive.

Canepa, whose mother brought her to the United States from Uruguay when she was 2, said that when she was growing up, her mother walked to work two towns away, cleaning houses and buildings.

Her mother was working Monday, but "I came here to support her," said Canepa, who lives in Morris County. Her mother should be able to drive, Canepa said, adding that "she did work that a lot of people wouldn't do."

A bill that would enable people like Canepa's mother to drive legally in New Jersey cleared the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee Monday, with three Democrats in favor and two Republicans against.

But it is sure to hit a roadblock with Gov. Christie, who issued a statement Monday saying he was "disturbed by the Legislature even considering" the measure and pledging that he would "immediately" veto it if it reached his desk.

"As a former United States attorney, I know that the driver's license is the single most important piece of homeland security identification," said Christie, who has touted his law enforcement background on the presidential campaign trail. "Yet the Legislature proposes giving that to people with no definitive proof of their identity. To consider doing this in the current environment is not only irresponsible, but dangerous."

Proponents of the bill - which would establish a driver's license for unauthorized immigrants who can supply proof of identity, date of birth, and residency in New Jersey - say it would improve safety on the roads.

Under the bill, the chief administrator of the state Motor Vehicles Commission would decide what documents could be considered. Documents for proving identity could include original or certified copies of identification issued by a consulate from the applicant's country of citizenship, a passport from the country of citizenship, or a foreign driver's license.

Between 2001 and 2005, on average, drivers who were definitely or possibly driving with an invalid license or no license were involved in nearly 20 percent of fatal crashes nationwide, according to a 2008 AAA Foundation report.

Supporters also said the bill would promote cooperation between immigrant communities and police.

And they said the license that unauthorized immigrants could receive would be limited: It wouldn't grant legal status, authorize the immigrants to work legally, or make them eligible for welfare.

"All this legislation will do is help people come out of the shadows, making all of us safer," said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D., Union), chair of the homeland security committee and a sponsor of the bill, which must also get a hearing before the Appropriations Committee before it can go to the full Assembly. The bill has not yet been heard in the Senate.

Quijano said the license would include language specifying that it was "not acceptable for official federal purposes." Proponents said the licenses could not be used to board airplanes.

That drew questions during the hearing, with skeptics voicing security worries.

"That is one of my biggest grave concerns, particularly with what's going on in the world right now," said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R, Bergen). "With a driver's license, you can do far more than just drive."

Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the proposed license was modeled after one enacted in California that he said was vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Twelve states - including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Vermont - and the District of Columbia offer driver's licenses to unauthorized immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The New Jersey proposal appears to be "much in the line of what other states have tried to do," requiring that unauthorized immigrants seeking the licenses have residency in the state and provide certain forms of documentation, said Ann Morse of the Immigrant Policy Project of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Oregon, voters in 2014 rejected a ballot measure to provide driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants, after the state had passed a law to grant licenses.

During Monday's hearing, assurances about security concerns didn't quell opposition to the bill.

"There's terrorists, you don't know who they are or where they come from. . . . Why are we pandering to people who do not belong here?" said Pat DeFilippis, a "fed-up American taxpayer" from Toms River.

"This does not have to do with terrorism," Quijano said. "This has to do with safety on the roads."

Jeffrey Hastings, 60, of Whippany, testified that driver's licenses were "a privilege and not a right," and questioned whether the bill would be a "magnet for more people to come to New Jersey," increasing the burden on services.

As he spoke, a woman in the crowd murmured, "We pay taxes."

The driver's license created by the bill would be valid for four years. Beyond the cost of a basic driver's license, the Motor Vehicle Commission would be allowed to charge an additional fee - not to exceed $50 per license - to offset administrative costs.

According to the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, between 153,000 and 278,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey would likely apply for the license in the first three years of a new policy, netting the state between $5.2 million and $9.5 million in license and permit fees during that period.

The think tank, which also projected more insurance payments, said its figures are based on the state's total estimated population of undocumented immigrants - 525,000 - and participation rates for license programs in other states, among other factors.

mhanna@phillynews.com

856-779-3232 @maddiehanna

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