Is this the year Michigan passes driver’s licens...

Is this the year Michigan passes driver’s license reform for undocumented immigrants?

"So many of us don't think about driver’s licenses; we take them for granted until we don't have them."

This month, the Drive SAFE (Safety, Access, Freedom, and the Economy) bills were introduced in the Michigan legislature. The package of bills would make it easier to get a driver’s license or state ID by eliminating the “legal presence” requirement, which requires applicants to prove U.S. citizenship or immigration status and has been in place since 2008

Undocumented people would benefit greatly from the bills, but even U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants sometimes struggle to obtain the necessary paperwork. In recent years, more than a dozen other states have enacted legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.

The Drive Michigan Forward Coalition, which is made up of immigrants and 10 allied organizations like the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and Michigan League for Public Policy, has been advocating for reform to Michigan’s driver’s license requirements for years. It’s in the midst of a week of action to inform the public and encourage Michigan Legislators to vote for the bills.

To learn more, we spoke with Gabriela Santiago-Romero, policy and research director for We The People Michigan, another member of the coalition. (Editor’s note: Santiago-Romero is also a former Detour Emerging Voices fellow.)

Detour Detroit: Why are these bills important? What kinds of opportunities will they open up? 

Gabriela Santiago-Romero: So many of us don’t think about driver’s licenses; we take them for granted until we don’t have them. To drive legally, you need an ID. To open a bank account, you need an ID. To get a job and so many more things, you need an ID. This is keeping people from opportunities and basic services, access to healthcare, mobility. It’s terrifying to hear stories about undocumented families with sick children who can’t drive them to the hospital or get prescription medicine. 

After 2008, when the state added the “legal presence” requirement, we saw a huge spike in deportations. My uncle was almost deported because he didn’t have an ID. We need to make sure we’re not separating families, not destroying people’s lives, because if you deport a parent, that’s half or all the income for the family. 

What are the chances that this will pass in a Republican-controlled Legislature?

In the last two cycles, similar bills were introduced and died, but I believe we do have the support we need this time in the House and Senate. Over the last two years, we’ve been building a coalition across the state. So while it’s true that the Legislature is very red right now, we’ve been organizing the faith-based community in urban and rural places, making calls, canvassing.

We’ve also done polling and found that people don’t want to have to have their neighbor not be able to get a vaccine because they don’t have an ID. (Note: You do not need state identification to get a COVID shot, but not having a license may be a barrier to getting to a vaccination site.) If people are driving without a license and insurance, that’s more unsafe drivers in their community. So we’ve done a good job building up our coalition and campaigning, growing that support on the ground. 

Tell me more about your organizing this week. What’s the coalition doing to promote the bills? 

This is a week of action where we’re hoping to grow that support even more. On Monday, we had a live session that went deeper into the history of the bills. Tuesday through Thursday, we’re doing phone banking, where we’re asking people to call their representatives and tell them to support these bills. On Friday, we’ll have a series of sessions to inform the public and demystify rumors and lies about the bills, like Republicans saying these will allow people to vote illegally. That won’t happen. Prior to 2008, everybody had IDs and we didn’t see any voter fraud. 

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.