- I don't know about you all out there,
but when I turned 16,
the only thing that was on my mind was getting my license.
Now, I failed the test the first time,
but that's neither here nor there.
When I finally got my Ls, you couldn't tell me a word.
I was the king of the world.
I was finally able to leave the house,
go wherever I wanted to go, get whatever I needed to get,
and do whatever I wanted to do.
Now, yeah, that really was just going to school
and getting food,
but I had the freedom to do it on my own time.
(energetic dance music)
But getting a driver's license
isn't just about passing a driver's test.
In most states, you have to be a legal resident,
which is a problem for approximately eight million people
living and working in the US illegally.
And there's actually been a growing movement
to allow people who are here illegally
to get driver's licenses,
with eight states introducing legislation just in 2019.
But this idea's been super controversial,
leading to fiery debates on both sides.
So today, we're gonna dive deep into this debate and ask,
"Should people who are here illegally
"be allowed to get driver's licenses?"
So, this topic is actually coming to us
from PBS Newshour's Student Reporting Labs
from Northview High School in Southern California.
Let's meet the team: Citlali, Francisco, Eric, and Angel.
They helped produce this episode by researching, writing,
shooting, and conducting interviews.
- So, why were you all interested in this topic?
- So, high school students like me
are starting to get permits and driver's licenses
and we're starting to realize:
to get anywhere, you need a car.
- That's true. - Yeah, it was weird
'cause not everyone working in the country
is allowed to get a driver's license either.
- So, that's what piqued our curiosity,
and that's why we're gonna get right down into it.
- All right, let's do it.
- Heck yeah, we will.
- Now, before we get into the specifics of this argument,
it's important to understand the bigger debate
about illegal immigration in America.
There are an estimated 11 million people
in the country illegally,
and many of them are coming from countries
where the line is really long to get a legal visa.
Check out our video all about that.
- So, the reality is that there's
an estimated eight million of them in the workforce.
All these people need to get to work,
and they are often driving,
meaning that they are here illegally.
You've also got unlicensed
and uninsured drivers on the road.
That's just the reality.
- [Citlali] So, states have started trying to figure out
what to do about that.
So far, 13 states and DC have passed laws
allowing people who are here illegally
to get driver's licenses,
and other states are currently debating this issue.
- And to be clear, we're talking about licenses
for people living here without legal permission.
Certain non-citizens like green card-holders
and some foreign students
are already allowed to get driver's licenses,
and these driver's licenses are different than REAL IDs.
- For those of you that don't know,
REAL ID is like a federal standard for driver's licenses,
and states have until October 2020 to comply.
And if you have a REAL ID driver's license from a state,
that means you've provided the appropriate documents,
like birth certificate or passport.
You need this REAL ID to travel on planes,
get into federal facilities, or go to a nuclear power plant.
It was recommended after 9/11 to help tighten US security.
- But states can still issue driver's licenses
that are not REAL ID-compliant.
These are for those who can't provide
the appropriate documents.
This includes citizens and people who are here illegally.
People with non-compliant driver's licenses
basically can only drive with it.
They can't use it to board planes.
That was a lotta setup, but important for this debate.
But what even made people start thinking about this?
- So, one of the main arguments
for issuing these driver's licenses
is that it's safer for the public.
- We met up with Karthick Ramakrishnan,
a leading immigration scholar
and professor of public policy and political science
at UC-Riverside, whose research supports these policies.
- The argument for providing driver's licenses is to,
A, reduce the consequences of unsafe driving,
B, encouraging more people to have auto insurance
by providing them with driver's licenses,
and, C, ultimately providing
the kinds of fundamental privileges
that we expect of state residents.
So, those are some of the main reasons why
states have considered providing driver's licenses.
- In fact, according to this study published in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
California saw a significant decrease
in hit-and-run incidents after they implemented the law
allowing people who are here illegally
to apply for driver's licenses.
- Just because someone does not qualify
for a driver's license does not mean
that they're not gonna drive a vehicle to get to work
or to get to a doctor's appointment.
But because they do so without a license,
they also do so without auto insurance.
And what the research has shown is that when people do that,
they are more likely when they get into accidents
to engage in hit-and-run.
They're not gonna stay at the scene of these accidents
because of the legal risks that they face.
- [Citlali] And there's a moral argument too.
Having a driver's license allows you the ability
to take care of basic human needs
like accessing healthcare or education,
education specifically being a right protected by the law.
- And there are some economic benefits
when more people buy auto insurance
and pay the DMV to register their cars.
So, those are the core arguments
for allowing states to issue driver's licenses
to people who are here illegally.
But it seems in reality
this isn't actually a popular policy.
- [ID] A nationally-representative
August 2019 Harvard-Harris poll
found that only 28% of registered voters
thought that immigrants who are here illegally
should be allowed to get a driver's license.
Similarly, when New York was debating this law,
a March 2019 Quinnipiac poll
showed that only 37% of voters supported it.
- Another claim is that it's simply not fair.
These people broke the law,
so why should they be given the privilege to drive?
It's a common refrain we heard from New York politicians
who were against this measure
when their state was debating it.
- My perspective, it's a slap in the face
to law-abiding New Yorkers, as well as new Americans
that have taken the appropriate steps
to do things in the right way and become citizens legally.
I've polled this issue back at home.
85% of the people in Senate District 52 are opposed to this.
- Why should any immigrant from any nation
go through the long and costly process
that my Greek grandparents and so many others went through
and still are going through
of becoming legal United States citizens
if they can attain the benefits of being a citizen
without following the law?
- By giving them this license,
some see it as basically providing legitimacy
for people who broke the law.
And furthermore, it can be seen
as encouraging illegal employment
and, in some cases, illegal immigration.
It's sending the message that the United States
is not serious about enforcing its immigration laws.
- Others argue that by granting licenses
to people who are here illegally,
you're increasing the risk of voter fraud
and identity fraud in general.
It's a common argument we heard all over the news.
- Isn't the real issue here
that if you give driver's licenses to illegals,
you're opening the door to illegal voting?
That's what's going on, isn't it?
- It will absolutely take place
because one of the prime identifiers
that give you the ability to vote,
gives you your residence, et cetera,
has been and is the driver's license.
- The fear is this.
If we are accepting foreign documents at the DMV,
those documents could be easier to forge.
And when it comes to voting,
in many states, registering to vote
is connected to getting a driver's license.
So, it could be easier
for a non-citizen to register to vote.
- However, supporters of this legislation point out
that report after report
shows that voter fraud is super rare
and many states that have this law have checks in place
to make sure you are not mistakenly
registering people to vote who shouldn't be.
- Okay, so let's recap.
Some of the main arguments for allowing people
who are here illegally to get a driver's license
include that it can make roads safer
by decreasing uninsured and unlicensed drivers,
leading to fewer hit-and-runs.
It also allows for greater mobility
for people to get to critical places
like doctor's appointments and school.
And there are small economic benefits for states
from collecting more licensing fees and taxes.
And on the flip side,
some of the arguments against allowing driver's licenses
include it rewards people for breaking the law,
it can encourage illegal immigration or employment,
and it can increase fraud,
since foreign documents are easier to forge.
So, what do you think?
Do you think people who are here illegally
should be allowed to apply for driver's licenses?
Let us know in the comments below.
Hey, thank you for watching.
For more on immigration,
be sure to check out our video on the asylum process.
And if you want more from our student reporters,
check out this video on violent video games.
And if you're a teacher,
get your students talking about this video
on our website, KQED Learn.
As always, I'm your host, Myles Bess.