Several hundred thousand undocumented immigrants in Virginia could soon win permission to legally drive in the state, a life-altering reform that is part of a host of immigrant-related bills making their way through the General Assembly.
As Tuesday’s deadline approaches for bills to “cross over” between the legislature’s two chambers before they can be sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the newly empowered Democratic majority is pushing nearly 20 bills advocates say would make life easier for immigrant families across the state.
Chief among them is legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a years-long goal that the Northam administration estimates would affect 308,000 people.
That privilege — which exists in Maryland, the District of Columbia and 14 other states — was long blocked by Republicans when they controlled the General Assembly.
A driver’s license bill in the Senate won preliminary approval Friday, with a final vote expected Monday. A similar proposal in the House of Delegates appears headed for a floor vote Tuesday.
Proposals to allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition, bar local police from asking crime victims about immigration status and create a new office for immigrant services have also sailed toward approval.
“The transformation that is happening is incredible,” said Luis Aguilar, the Virginia director of the CASA immigrant advocacy group, which has filled several committee hearings with activists advocating for the changes since the legislative session began Jan. 8.
“This fight is not just about the individual bills,” Aguilar said. “The fight is truly about equity.”
Republican lawmakershave resisted most of the changes.
During a House committee hearing last month about the driver’s license issue, Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, argued that allowing undocumented immigrants to carry an official state ID opens the door to identity fraud.
“This license can be taken as the person is a citizen of the United States,” Austin said. “This could misrepresent an individual’s identity and compromise the safety in the United States.”
Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, the bill’s sponsor, countered that the measure would place more insured drivers on the road who have passed state driving tests. The bill moved to the next phase of approval on a party-line vote.
The immigrant-friendly bills come as the Trump administration seeks to further tighten federal immigration laws, including threats of massive raids.
In that climate, several Democratic-majority state legislatures have passed laws seeking to protect undocumented immigrants, while others have moved to limit their state’s role in federal immigration enforcement, according to a recent report by the National Immigration Law Center.
Red states have moved in the opposite direction. Florida and Arkansas both recently passed “anti-sanctuary” laws in support of tougher enforcement.
Maryland — where nearly 276,000 undocumented immigrants are allowed to drive under a 2013 license law — recently expanded its “Dream Act” for students seeking to attend college in the state. Undocumented students no longer will be required to attend a two-year community college before they can receive tuition discounts. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, tried to veto the bill, but the General Assembly overturned the veto.
Last year, the District — which has allowed undocumented immigrants to drive since 2014 and offers the same tuition rates for all residents — ended a jail policy of holding undocumented inmates wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement beyond their release dates.
But with the Trump administration increasingly pressuring states to hand over information on undocumented immigrants, some activists worry federal immigration officials will try to use Department of Motor Vehicles records to target people for deportation.
Ann Morse, who analyzes immigrant-related laws for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said officials around the country “are trying to weigh encouraging people to sign up for driver’s licenses and become insured versus the concern that ICE is now coming into state databases and hijacking that information.” She said some states have passed laws that require federal officials to have a court order or federal warrant before they are allowed access to DMV records.