A new study says allowing the estimated 750,000 undocumented immigrants living in Florida to obtain driver’s licenses would not only ease their lives, but also increase state revenue and public safety.
The findings of the study by nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute (FPI) could play a large part in upcoming legislation being introduced by state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, aimed at allowing driver’s licenses for all.
The bill would align Florida with 14 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, all of whom have passed similar laws.
“These individuals deserve the opportunity to be able to drive on our streets, on our roads, after they prove they have insurance, so that they’re not right now living in an underground society, a second class society, where they are not going to assimilate, be able to drive, or work,” Simmons said in an interview with Florida Politics.
Despite supporting Florida’s new anti-sanctuary cities law (SB 168) this past spring, Simmons said allowing people to live in shadows and work and drive illegally is a crisis.
“We’re a little cautious, because Simmons was one of the proponents of SB 168 last session, but at the same time we need bipartisan consensus on this issue,” Thomas Kennedy with the Florida Immigrant Coalition told the Miami Herald. “It’s a common-sense proposal from our point of view to have every Florida driver have a license, and so we’re happy that Sen. Simmons agrees with us and we just want to work with him to get this issue done.”
The FPI interviewed Lorena, a student at Florida State University whose family has been living in Florida for 14 years. Her family left Peru with the hopes of a better life in the United States, a goal she says they have reached despite being undocumented.
While Lorena is licensed through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, her parents’ status prevents them from getting driver’s licenses under Florida law.
“Over the years, I have noticed that people who have always had a license sometimes don’t understand how hard it really is for those that don’t have one,” Lorena said, “and all the hoops you have to jump through in order to be able to drive in a way that best protects you and your family.”
Her mother relies on Florida’s limited public transportation, which brings her home hours after her shifts cleaning houses have ended. Lorena’s father was taught to drive in Peru and risks being targeted by the police when driving illegally and subsequently deported.
This leaves Lorena in constant fear for her parent’s safety.
This fear is a reality for many undocumented immigrants living and working throughout the nation. The FPI's report says longtime concerns over confidentiality need to be taken seriously.
“The concern is that Florida driver's license offices will share photographs and other identifying information with authorities, like ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customes Enforcement), for the purpose of immigration enforcement. This has happened in some other states,” says Alexis Davis, the author of the report. “Thankfully, the fast work of lawyers and advocates has begun to reverse this practice.”
Recommended precautions include prohibiting Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles from giving access to federal agencies without a court order or judicial warrant and barring the use of facial recognition software.
The report focuses on the benefits not only for undocumented immigrants, but for the state as a whole, noting that the increase in state revenue would be significant.
Based on licensing and vehicle purchasing fees alone, the policy change would generate about $68.6 million in state revenue during the first three years.
The new revenue would be disbursed among the General Revenue Fund, the Highway Safety and Operating Funding, and the State Transportation Fund, which Davis says may be vital “at a time when Florida is anticipating a large revenue shortfall.”
The report also emphasizes public safety in the form of an increase in trained and tested drivers and a decrease in accidents and hit-and-runs.
"The alternative is either people are on the road, driving unlicensed, or they have no idea how to drive at all," Davis said. "So when you get people trained and you get them their drivers license, now that just like the rest of us who are licensed, they understand the rules of the road, specifically Florida rules of the road."
The FPI concludes that “until a better path to citizenship is created, state legislators can make the common-sense choice to enact more inclusive policies around testing and licensing” to “position Florida as a state that values the shared prosperity of all its residents.”