Bills expanding driving privileges for immigrants die in committees

Elena Camacho (left) spoke in Spanish about the need to legally drive a motor vehicle in the state of Virginia as Monica Sarmiento (right) translated. | Photo by Saffeya Ahmed.
By  | 

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (Jan. 30):

All four bills to expand driving privileges to immigrants living in Virginia illegally are dead – to the disappointment of dozens of immigrant rights advocates who showed up in support of the legislation.

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said making driving privileges more accessible is long overdue.

“Virginia could have become a leader by passing legislation to grant driving privileges to all Virginians, regardless of their immigration status, but instead, some leaders chose political talking points over public safety,” Nguyen stated in a press release.

In the House, Dels. Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack, and Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, introduced separate bills to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue “driver privilege cards” to Virginia residents who meet certain criteria. While Bloxom’s HB 1843 required applicants to provide a passport as proof of identity, Tran’s HB 2025 did not.

Bloxom, the only Republican legislator in Virginia sponsoring such a bill, said he has been working on this issue for four years.

“I can’t do anything about immigration or the federal government,” Bloxom said. “But in Virginia, we could give these people the ability to drive legally and safely.”

Despite the large turnout in support of the legislation, Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Transportation Committee tabled both bills Friday morning on a 4-2 vote.

Two days earlier, the Senate Transportation Committee defeated SB 1740, which was introduced by Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and incorporated SB 1641, by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, also a Democrat from Fairfax.

Surovell said the bill was critical and would have increased state revenue and improved public safety.

Washington, D.C., and 12 states have laws allowing immigrants in the U.S. illegally to obtain driving privileges.

“Their number of hit-and-run cases fell off a cliff,” Surovell said. “Once people have ID, they stop and report themselves.”

There has been a 20 percent decrease in traffic fatalities nationwide since 1994. But states that expanded driving privileges prior to 2013 – New Mexico, Utah and Washington – saw traffic fatalities decrease by more than 30 percent, according to a report by The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which studies issues affecting low-income residents.

The institute attributed the change to more drivers having undergone the training and testing required to get a license.

Nearly a dozen people testified in favor of the bill, sharing personal stories and urging senators to approve the bill.

A representative from the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network said one member was unable to join the meeting because her younger brother – who has epilepsy – had a doctor’s appointment, and she is the only family member able to drive to him.

“When he first had a seizure, his parents were unable to be by his side, because they don’t have the legal ability to drive. No family should have to go through these obstacles to be near their children when they’re sick.”

No one spoke in opposition to the bill. However, the Federation for American Immigration Reform says that the legislation would reward lawbreakers. “The state of Virginia should not be facilitating people violating federal immigration law,” said Ira Mehlman, the group’s media director.

On the other hand, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, called the legislation “absolutely essential” and added, “I strongly support this bill.”

“Driving is an essential part of living in this country today – to go to the doctor’s, to go to work, take your children to school,” Edward said.

The Senate Transportation Committee defeated Surovell’s bill on a 6-7 vote. Edwards and five other Democrats voted in favor of the measure. The seven Republicans on the panel voted against the legislation.

HOW THEY VOTED

Here is how the Senate Transportation Committee voted on SB 1740 (Driver privilege cards; penalty).

01/23/19 Senate: Failed to report (defeated) in Transportation (6-Y 7-N)
YEAS — Deeds, Marsden, Favola, Edwards, McClellan, Boysko — 6.
NAYS — Carrico, Newman, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Chase, Suetterlein, Peake — 7.

Here is how Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Transportation Committee voted on HB 1843 (Driver privilege cards; penalty) and HB 2025 (Driver privilege cards; penalty).

01/25/19 House: Subcommittee recommends laying on the table (4-Y 2-N)
YEAS — Adams, L.R., Garrett, Collins, Miyares — 4.
NAYS — Carr, Delaney — 2.

__________

ORIGINAL STORY (Jan. 9):

Immigrant rights advocates urged legislators Wednesday to provide driving privileges, wage theft protection and in-state tuition to people who reside in Virginia illegally.

The Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights — composed of more than 20 immigrant justice organizations — laid out its legislative agenda on behalf of the state’s estimated 270,000 residents without legal permission to live in the U.S.

Ben Hoyne of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy said he hopes the General Assembly will amend the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, which currently exempts certain jobs from being paid minimum wage.

“Shoeshine boys, movie ticket takers, newspaper boys, other things like that,” Hoyne said. He said those jobs were “specifically written into Virginia code to be excluded and not be paid the minimum wage of $7.25.”

Hoyne also called for legislation requiring employers to provide pay stubs to employees and implement whistleblower protections for workers who complain about employers.

Some advocates, including Haziel Andrade of the Virginia Intercollegiate Immigrant Alliance, shared personal stories about why issues such as college tuition and the ability to drive affect Virginia’s immigrant communities.

“As I share part of my story,” Andrade said, “I’d like anyone listening to look at me as a human being, not by my immigration status.”

Andrade arrived in the U.S. from Colombia at 3 years old. Currently a temporary resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she studies computer science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Andrade asked legislators to let Virginians lacking proper documentation pay in-state tuition rates.

“Now more than ever, I’m being targeted because of my immigration status. And I feel as though no one cares about my education,” Andrade said. “What makes my education any different from any other Virginian student?”

Of the 270,000 Virginians residing in the U.S. without permission, at least 12,000 were minors who qualified for DACA in 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But not everyone believes DACA recipients should receive in-state tuition.

Ira Mehlman, media director with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called subsidizing tuition for those living in the U.S. illegally a “zero-sum game.”

“Money that is given to subsidize college educations for people who are in the country illegally is money that is not given to someone else,” Mehlman said. He said the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights wants “to allocate scarce public resources to benefit a group of people who are in the country illegally, and it’s coming at the expense of other people who need those benefits.”

Besides in-state tuition, members of the coalition discussed the need for legal permission to drive a motor vehicle. Elena Camacho told her story in Spanish, translated by VACIR Executive Director Monica Sarmiento.

“The first example I’ll list is an undocumented friend I have who has a special needs son,” Camacho said. “She needs to drive her son to and from the doctor’s office ... She has this daily need, but she isn’t able to fulfill it.”

But Mehlman said driving privileges are just that — a privilege.

“The idea that you are in the country illegally — you have no legal right to be here — [and] you should be awarded the privilege of driving … it simply doesn’t make much sense,” Mehlman said. “The state of Virginia should not be facilitating people violating federal immigration law.”

Camacho described driving as a need, not a want.

“The ability to have driving privileges is absolutely essential,” Sarmiento translated. “Some people see a basic necessity as being able to have food, to have health care. Driving privileges should be seen in that particular way because it is an access to all those avenues.”