MILLVILLE, N.J. – Benito Torres knows too well the difficulties of everyday life in New Jersey without a driver’s license.
An undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Millville, New Jersey, Torres has gotten several summonses over the years for driving without a license.
He needs to drive to get to the furniture warehouse where he works. And there are other hang-ups as well: A side job as an auto mechanic is harder because he has struggled to exchange tools at hardware stores without a license. Even buying a beer after a hard day’s work is more complicated without a standard ID.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and since the first day I got here, I have wanted to have a driver’s license,’’ he said. He’s in the process of legalizing his status, he said, but that may take months.
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But come May 1, Torres and hundreds of thousands of other New Jersey residents will be eligible to begin the process of obtaining a state driver’s license, regardless of legal status or a lack of documentation.
New Jersey will join 15 other states and the District of Columbia in offering licenses to non-citizens regardless of legal status. The group includes New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and California, among other states.
The effort, however, has run into some of the same snags that bedeviled the early rollout of coronavirus vaccines, according to immigration advocates: confusion over where and how to get appointments and concerns that the online process will make it more difficult for less computer-savvy applicants.
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Diana Mejia, a founder of Morristown’s Wind of the Spirit which works with local immigrants, said volunteers have found state Motor Vehicle Commission offices not always ready to help.
“They get responses that included that they didn’t know anything and that it wasn’t a law,” Mejia said. “The attitude of the employees at the [MVC] will be crucial in reassuring people who are going through the process of getting a license.”
Driving schools in cities with ethnic enclaves said they are fielding calls from immigrants hunting for information on how to get the licenses.
“Even before this we always had people inquiring if we could give them driver’s licenses without a learner’s permit or with just their licenses from their country of origin, so I’m pretty sure business will increase,’’ said Johana Guzman, owner of Enterprise Driving School in Passaic, who plans to hire more instructors. “We are going to have more work once May comes.”
The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2019 after a long debate, allows for a standard driver’s license to be issued to immigrants regardless of legal status. It would also make licenses available to senior citizens, domestic violence survivors, former prisoners and homeless people who may lack documentation.
The state Motor Vehicle Commission will begin processing applications at the start of May, after delaying plans for a Jan. 1 rollout due to the pandemic.
The law will extend driving privileges to about 400,000 of New Jersey’s estimated 475,000 undocumented immigrants, the commission anticipates.
Costs and benefits
The law has the potential to improve public safety and generate new revenue for the state economy, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
In a 2019 study, the group projected that the expansion of driver’s licenses will generate $21 million in revenue from permit, title and driver’s license fees during the first three years of implementation. New Jersey can expect an additional $90 million from registration fees, gas taxes and sales taxes on motor vehicles and auto parts, they predicted. The study did not estimate the costs of implementation.
A fiscal analysis of the driver’s licenses bill by the stateOffice of Legislative Services said it could not estimate either costs or potential revenues, but said the law would likely net a revenue increase for the state in part due to the significant interest in acquiring new licenses.
Those who oppose the law have said it prioritizes immigrants without legal status above everyone else.
Among the critics is Greg Schraer, owner of the Paramus Driving School, who said he doesn’t think people who can’t speak English should be given licenses because road signs are in English.
“We need to have a system that gives people the right to become citizens and the right to be here legally, but I don’t think we should be making any allowances for people who are here illegally’’ he said. “I don’t even teach people who only speak Spanish, because I feel very strongly that you need to know the language to drive.”
Some have pointed to the potential for fraud in obtaining the licenses. Some states, like Maryland, that made driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants a few years ago found that hundred of licenses were issued to applicants who submitted counterfeit documentation.
But the MVC’s Connolly said the agency has precautions in place to identify fraudulent paperwork.He added that employees are being trained on the new document requirements ahead of the May 1 start date.
Last month the state Motor Vehicle Commission announced that it had overhauled its “First Driver License/ID” webpage to make it easier for people to start the process. The page includes frequently asked questions and a video guide. All of the information is now available in English and Spanish.
Torres, the Millville warehouse worker, said he has grown frustrated when asked to present a driver’s license during the most mundane of errands. One day he went to a neighborhood liquor store to buy some beer and the cashier asked for proof of his age. Without a license, he couldn’t buy the beer, and he never returned to the store.
“I’ll never forget, I was so upset. They had never asked me for ID before,’’ he said.
Maria Estrada, 38, who emigrated from Guatemala in 2011, said she’s getting her documents ready so she can apply for the license as soon as possible. The Princeton woman looks forward to taking her children to school and going to her housecleaning job in her own car.
“I feel good because now we will be able to transport ourselves to work and not pay for a taxi or other ride,” said Estrada, a member of Unidad Latina en Accion New Jersey, a Mercer County-based group that helps immigrants.
Follow reporter Monsy Alvarado on Twitter: @monsyalvarado
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