Hurdles persist for undocumented immigrants seeking N.J. driver’s licenses

400K+ undocumented residents became eligible for a N.J. driver’s license on May 1.

By: - July 30, 2021 7:03 am

A man stands outside a Motor Vehicle Commission location in Wallington on July 29, 2021. (Photo by Terrence T. McDonald)

It’s been three months since New Jersey implemented a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and members of that community say they face multiple hurdles trying to obtain them.

From being denied translators to getting turned away despite possessing valid documents to a booked-solid appointment system, advocacy groups argue too many people keep running into the same problems with the state Motor Vehicle Commission.

Hera Mir, of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said it all “feels like discriminatory behavior.”

“What we’re seeing is certain agencies seem to have some ‘internal policy’ of asking for another document. They’ve been rude to people who may not understand English right away. They ask for tax returns that aren’t required,” Mir said.

An MVC spokesman said the agency does not tolerate discrimination and all reported instances of it are investigated.

This all comes as the MVC struggles to recover from restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Those rules shuttered state agencies, including MVC centers, for months, creating a huge backlog of drivers needing new licenses and those needing to renew expired ones.

Even when the agencies reopened, COVID-19 outbreaks at them led to new closures, contributing to the backlog and delaying status-neutral licensing for five months.

Victory after years of lobbying

The law opening up licenses to undocumented immigrants and other residents who may not possess previously required paperwork — like domestic violence survivors, homeless people or veterans — went into effect on May 1. Immigrant advocacy groups lobbied Trenton for driver’s license privileges for 15 years before lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 and Gov. Phil Murphy signed it into law.

New Jersey is the 15th state to open up driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, joining among others New York, Connecticut and California.

MVC spokesman William Connolly dubbed the rollout of the licensing “a great success” and told the New Jersey Monitor the agency is “working to accommodate as many drivers as possible, regardless of immigration status.” While 100,000 new permits have been distributed since the law changed, there’s no way to say how many of those were obtained by undocumented immigrants, since the agency does not track immigration status, Connelly said.

Still, the MVC blamed the agency’s booked-solid appointment system on the hundreds of thousands of newly eligible drivers, according to  NJ.com.

Advocates and lawmakers say they are dismayed by what they view as unfair scapegoating by the state.

Senator Teresa Ruiz speaking
Sen. Teresa Ruiz sponsored the bill that led to status-neutral licenses. (Photo by Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)

“Those comments were reckless and irresponsible,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who sponsored the bill that led to expansion of driver’s licenses. “This has been a constant issue. I don’t know how you can say that [the reason] a person can’t get a license is because of the overburden of this bill.”

Itzel Hernandez, an immigrant rights organizer with the American Friends Service Committee and DACA recipient, agreed.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say this falls on undocumented folks. It should be a good sign that we want to do the right thing and go through it as legally binding as we could,” she said.

MVC backlog

The MVC is processing 25% more transactions per week than before the pandemic, Connolly said, due to lifting capacity limits and the backlog of first-time drivers who have been waiting to get their first permits and licenses.

“We will continue to grow capacity as customers become more comfortable using online services — thus reducing the demand for in-person appointments — and as COVID restrictions are relaxed and in-person school re-starts, resulting in fewer employees taking leave. We also regularly evaluate appointment availability, shifting appointment types based on demand,” he added.

Mir said she knows only of two people out of several hundred undocumented immigrants who have successfully obtained their permits, which made her skeptical that the lack of appointments is due to people seeking neutral-status licenses.

She pointed to a 2019 New Jersey Policy Perspective study predicting, before the pandemic, about 47% of New Jersey’s undocumented residents would seek licenses. Now, after the threat of COVID-19 moved all MVC appointments online, the agency has eliminated walk-in appointments, creating a a barrier for families with no or poor internet service or computers and for residents with inflexible work schedules. Advocates argue all this means the number of undocumented immigrants seeking licenses is probably lower than it would be under normal circumstances.

Hernandez hasn’t even been able to get an appointment for her mom to get a license, even if she searches for an open spot in the middle of the night.

“There’s just a shortage of appointments. It’s better to say there’s a shortage of appointments for everyone, not just a certain group, because that’s unfair and unreasonable,” she said.

Connolly said the agency has reached more than 100,000 people with information on new licenses through social media campaigns. No qualified applicant possessing the required documents is turned away or denied a permit or license, he added.

The MVC encourages applicants to use the resources on the agency’s First Driver License/ID webpage to ensure they fulfill the requirements so that “any visits to obtain permits and licenses are successful.” The agency also has several resources online translated into Spanish, with more languages to come.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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