State Sen. Stephanie Chang says granting state driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is as much of an issue of economics and public health as it is about immigration.
Chang, a first-term Democratic senator from Detroit who served two terms in the state House, plans to reintroduce legislation later this year that would provide a path for undocumented immigrants and others to receive a state-issued license and identification if they can prove they live in the state. Chang has proposed similar legislation in prior sessions, including with backing from a former Republican representative in 2017. Those bills failed to get a hearing.
The effort comes with support from West Michigan immigration advocates, who for years have backed “licenses for all” legislation to keep a large number of undocumented immigrants out of deportation proceedings. Often, undocumented immigrants find themselves in front of judges for minor driving offenses and not possessing a license.
The concept also has support from the Michigan Farm Bureau — whose members depend on workers with reliable transportation — as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The Michigan Catholic Conference reportedly supports licenses for undocumented immigrants “as a matter of human dignity.”
“A huge part of our economy relies on migrant workers,” Chang said. “They need to be able to get to work, drive their kids to schools or go grocery shopping. And we are a car state.”
She added that granting licenses is a “huge road safety issue” by having drivers pass tests before getting a license. Additionally, it would grow the pool of drivers purchasing car insurance.
Chang plans to introduce two bills involving driver’s licenses and state identification cards. The idea is to issue state licenses to people who can’t prove legal presence in the U.S. or haven’t otherwise been able to get a license, which could include legal residents in some cases. Identification cards would have a clear marking indicating they can’t be used for federal purposes.
Applicants would simply have to prove they live in Michigan, similar to state law prior to 2008 when former Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion saying the practice violated federal law. In 2008, the state Legislature codified the opinion, which had widespread support among lawmakers. Media reports at the time said the practice of issuing licenses faced public scrutiny post-9/11.
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), which is providing expertise as the new legislation is drafted, said a two-tiered licensing system is modeled off of policies in 13 states and Washington, D.C.
“There are tens of thousands of people — if not more — across the state who are ineligible for driver’s licenses now” as a result of the 2008 policy change, said MIRC co-managing attorney Ruby Robinson. “One of the things we see most often is people who end up in the immigration system and deportation proceedings are pulled over for minor offenses, like a broken taillight. That starts a parade of horribles for that individual and their family.”
Former Republican state Rep. Dave Pagel of Berrien Springs was a co-sponsor of the 2017 legislation. Pagel was defeated by Sen. Kim LaSata in the 2018 Republican primary for a state Senate seat. The former lawmaker owns Dave Pagel Produce, a Southwest Michigan produce distributor. Pagel could not be reached for comment.
The Michigan Farm Bureau supports a state policy that provides a “limited purpose operator’s license” for people without proof of citizenship status and increasing penalties for providing fraudulent information to the Secretary of State. The Farm Bureau also supports a required written and driving skills test.
The limited operator’s license would be issued “only as a license to drive a motor vehicle and not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration or public benefits,” according to the group.
“Our policy supports the concept and we’re in conversation with Sen. Chang on the matter,” said Steve Paradiso, spokesperson for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this story, saying they don’t have formal policy positions on the issue.
The legislation likely faces an uphill climb in the state Legislature. Advocates say lawmakers’ immediate concerns are focused on passing a statewide budget and avoiding a government shutdown. Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield also has expressed opposition to such a policy, saying it encourages undocumented immigration.
Other critics have claimed issuing state licenses to undocumented immigrants increases chances of voter and identification fraud. Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young told MiBiz sister publication Revue in April that getting license credentials prior to 2008 created problems for local enforcement to confirm identities.
“That created identity theft issues,” LaJoye-Young said at the time. “Essentially with a couple pieces of paper, someone could create an identification for themselves.”
LaJoye-Young said she wouldn’t be comfortable with a licenses-for-all policy “without a strong foundation of how we identify a person.”
However, supporters dismiss these concerns or say they can be addressed in legislation. Immigration advocates believe that being able to obtain a driver’s license would not drive immigrants to move to a state like Michigan.
“I don’t think the ability to get a driver’s license in Michigan is a push or pull factor for people who are immigrating,” Robinson said. “The reason people are fleeing where they are fleeing is because of violence and horrific situations going on there.”
Additionally, international driver’s licenses from most countries are accepted as valid in Michigan. However, residents who have been in Michigan for a decade or longer are unlikely to be able to obtain such identification.
Chang says she is willing to appease skeptical colleagues and address voter fraud concerns with stronger language in a bill, even though she says it is not a concern.
“We already don’t believe the bill as written would at all allow undocumented immigrants to vote,” Chang said. “But we may look at language to make it crystal clear.”
Chang also notes the policy has been approved in 13 other states, including Illinois. States will issue a license if residents can provide certain documentation. So far this year, lawmakers in eight states have introduced legislation on the topic, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Several other states have adopted this policy, and clearly the world has not ended,” Chang said.
Supporters also say issuing licenses is far from a substitute for national, comprehensive immigration reform, and is needed even more as the Trump administration has stepped up enforcement action against undocumented immigrants. Previously, the federal government had a “policy of discretion,” Robinson said, based on how long a person had lived in the U.S. and whether they had prior criminal convictions.
“This is one thing the state Legislature can do to improve the lives of Michiganders who have been here for decades and contribute to the economy here,” Robinson said. “It’s one thing they can do to provide a short reprieve from day-to-day anxieties and stress that many immigrant families endure.”