Immigrant rights advocates are celebrating, as Minnesota became the 19th state to allow drivers licenses to be issued to undocumented immigrants. Yet while the policy has broad support in theory, some have their qualms about the final bill.
After securing final passage in the Minnesota House last week, the Drivers Licenses for All Bill was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Tim Walz.
The legislation reverses a 2003 executive action led by Gov. Tim Pawlenty which required proof of legal residency status to obtain a driver’s license.
Advocates have been lobbying to overturn that rule change for more than a decade now. While some versions of such bill enjoyed bipartisan support, Republicans as a whole were far more skeptical than their DFL colleagues. However, the GOP lost most of its power at the Capitol after losing control of the Minnesota Senate last fall.
The Drivers Licenses for All Bill passed both the House and the Senate strictly along party lines, with DFLers also voting as a bloc to reject a host of proposed GOP amendments.
The bill had support from an incredibly broad swath of interest groups. In addition to immigrant rights advocates, the bill was backed by labor unions, law enforcement and business groups, who argued that the current policy hinders Minnesota’s ability to deal with its workforce issues and makes the state’s roads less safe.
Among the bill’s co-sponsors was Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato. The longtime personal injury lawyer said the bill would improve road safety while providing a measure of “dignity” for undocumented workers and their families.
Frentz took particular care to emphasize that the bill was strongly backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, two of the capitol’s most powerful lobby groups and close allies of many Republican legislators.
In his remarks on the Senate floor shortly before passage, Frentz also noted that the bill has strong support from major agriculture groups, including the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, and the Minnesota Farmers Union.
“Members, agriculture is asking you to vote for this bill,” Frentz said. “And why? So that men and women can get to work safely.”
Local Farmers Union President Steven Read said the bill could provide a much-needed boost for rural communities where not only farmers but a variety of small businesses have struggled to hire staff, and where driving is a necessity.
“Labor is one of the biggest challenges facing not only farms but rural businesses in general,” he said. “Making it easier for folks to be able to safely drive to work… will make our businesses stronger.”
Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, also strongly supported the bill, visiting the Northfield Human Rights Commission with fellow first-year Rep. Maria Isa Perez-Vega to discuss the potentially life-altering impacts the bill could have for members of Northfield’s immigrant communities.
During the campaign, Pursell said she heard again and again from her now-constituents in Northfield’s sizable and growing Latino community that no issue was more important.
“It feels like this is certainly a justice issue. We have folks living in marginalized spaces in our communities who live in constant fear,” Pursell said. “Making sure that people have access to proper drivers training and insurance makes us all safer.”
While some Republican legislators expressed an openness to the bill, efforts to secure at least some bipartisan support crumbled as DFL majorities rejected amendments that would have added a special marking to those licenses issued to undocumented immigrants.
Past versions of the bill had included the special marking requirements, but DFLers dismissed that requirement as unnecessary and out of concern it could lead to discrimination.
Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, argued that the refusal to add a special marking to the licenses could lead them to be mistakenly taken as proof of eligibility for privileges such as for voting and access to certain government benefits that are reserved for U.S. citizens.
Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office has rejected the claim that the bill would likely lead to illegal voting. Communications Director Peter Bartz-Gallagher said licenses are already not used as proof of citizenship since many non-citizen legal residents already have licenses.
Still, Petersburg and Rep. Brian Pfarr, R-Le Sueur, expressed concern as to whether existing safeguards would be enough to prevent illegal voting. More broadly, they’re frustrated with how the DFL has used its majority to push through bills exactly as its members want instead of compromising a bit to build bipartisan support.
“The general idea is good. When I talked to state troopers, I think they were generally in favor,” Pfarr said. “The issue I have with it is that there should be a marking to identify that they are not a legal citizen of the country … so that there’s no confusion that it can not be used to vote.”
Faribault Police Chief John Sherwin also expressed reservations with the approach taken by the bill’s authors in crafting the final version. As much sense as he said it makes to enable undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, he expressed disappointment that the final bill wasn’t tailored to tap into that broad consensus.
In addition to adding special marking, Republicans offered another amendment to require the implementation of Drivers Licenses for All to be implemented only after federal REAL ID requirements go into effect in May 2025.
Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, has argued that potential national security risks could result from implementing Drivers Licenses for All before the Real ID requirement goes into effect because federal buildings, military bases and flights could all potentially be accessed with a simple driver’s license.
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, blasted Draheim’s assertions that undocumented immigrants could pose a national security threat if given driver’s licenses as “abhorrent.” For his part, Brand strongly backed the bill, viewing it as a matter of “decency” and “compassion.”
As for concerns about illegal voting and fraudulent benefit requests, Brand said that there’s little evidence that significant amounts of either occurred prior to 2003, when the current policy went into effect. He framed the proposed amendments as “a solution in search of a problem.”
“People just want to be able to drive their kids to school, and out here everything’s 10 miles away from everywhere else,” Brand said. “Let’s give them the dignity to get that accomplished.”