State Report Evaluates Extending Driver's Licenses To Idaho's Undocumented Immigrants
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. That includes western states like Utah, Washington and Nevada. A new report released this week highlights what it would mean for Idaho to join them.
The report from the Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE), a nonpartisan, independent office that serves the Idaho legislature, was requested by 14 Idaho lawmakers last year.
“The reality is that we have thousands of undocumented residents in Idaho and, as such, we have a road safety and compromised workforce issue,” they wrote.
Many of those lawmakers serve agricultural communities, including Sen. Jim Guthrie (R-McCammon), the chair of the Senate Agricultural Affairs committee.
Guthrie floated the idea for a bill that would extend driving privileges to Idaho’s roughly 37,000 undocumented immigrants last year, but decided not to introduce it because he said it needed more work. However, he said he intended to introduce it this year.
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association and the immigrant rights organization PODER of Idaho have both expressed support for the concept.
OPE was tasked with figuring out how driving privilege programs have worked in other states, said Casey Petti, the lead researcher.
Specifically, lawmakers were interested in whether roads become safer and if pressure on the criminal justice is eased when undocumented immigrants can legally drive.
Idaho Transportation Department data shows vehicle accidents involving unlicensed drivers are more likely to result in injury than ones with licensed drivers. Unlicensed drivers are also more likely to leave the scene of an accident.
Overall, Petti said, there’s little conclusive data on how giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses affects road safety. Many of these programs are fairly new. And some states adopted them on moral grounds, so they didn’t set out to quantitatively measure the effects.
On the criminal justice front, OPE doesn’t believe extending driving privileges would significantly reduce the number of undocumented immigrants who are detained by ICE due to traffic stops.
That’s because in 2018, Idaho code changed so that it became more difficult to be jailed for driving without a license. Instead of getting a misdemeanor and two days in jail for getting caught the first time, you’d just face an infraction and a fine for the first two offenses. Being caught three or more times in a five-year span could mean a misdemeanor and up to six months in jail.
One of the more conclusive findings from OPE’s research is that having a valid license increases people’s economic opportunity and productivity.
“It’s extremely consistent across the board,” Petti said.
Some studies showed employment within undocumented communities increased between 1-2.4% when they were granted driver’s licenses.
If Idaho legislators are interested in pursuing a bill to give undocumented immigrants driving privileges, there are a few things they’ll need to consider, said Petti.
First, the type of credential they’d get. Some states have used non-REAL ID cards and others have created a new card system for this purpose. Either way, undocumented people would be barred from participating in federally regulated activies — like voting or purchasing a firearm — with these identification cards.
Petti said legislators would also want to figure out whether they'd want to share the information with federal authorities, and how they'd go about either revealing or concealing that data. In some states, OPE found, federal access to sensitive immigration information has deterred people from obtaining licenses through these programs.
OPE will present these findings to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee as soon as next week. In the meantime, lawmakers will look over the results to see if a driver’s license bill is in the cards for this legislative session.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio