Minnesota House weighs driver's licenses for people in U.S. illegally

The bill would remove the requirement for license applicants to provide proof of citizenship or lawful presence in the U.S.

Customers wait in line at a Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services office.
Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota House panel is hearing testimony on a bill that would allow people in the U.S. illegally to obtain a driver's license, a long-held goal of immigration advocates that may gain more traction this year in a Democratic-Farmer-Labor controlled state government.

The “Driver’s Licenses For All” bill, sponsored by Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, would remove the requirement for license applicants to provide proof of citizenship or lawful presence in the U.S. Minnesota created the requirement 20 years ago, barring those without legal status from obtaining a license.

At a House Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday, Jan. 10, Gomez said the bill aims to fulfill a basic need for tens of thousands of Minnesota residents who need transportation to reach jobs, medical appointments and bring kids to school. It’s also about making the roads safer, she said.

A group of more than 30 DFL lawmakers gathered for a Capitol press conference to announce the formation of a new legislative caucus focused on voting and “defending democracy.”

“This bill is about the safety of everyone who drives on our roads it's about ensuring that people who are driving have access to insurance have demonstrated they understand the rules of the road and that they are able to operate a vehicle safely,” Gomez said as she presented the bill. “It’s about the vibrancy of our economy and human dignity.”

There are up to 95,000 people without legal immigration status living in Minnesota, according to the Pew Research Center, and immigration advocates have been fighting to restore their driving privileges since Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty instituted the proof of lawful admission rule in 2003.


Under the licenses for all bill, the set of documents that could be used to establish identity or residency would be expanded for people applying for an ID or license. Licenses would have no indication of the holder’s immigration status.

Bill co-sponsor, Rep. Maria Isa Perez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul, said the lack of access to driver’s licenses is of particular concern to people without legal immigration status who live in rural areas.

“It forces Minnesotans to drive in fear uninsured, while on essential trips, taking Minnesota kids to and from school, making it to the emergency room or to work on time," she said. "This fear is mostly deeply felt in small towns and rural communities, where public transit often is not an option.”

Eighteen other states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico currently allow those without legal status to obtain a license. A bill to do the same in Minnesota has appeared several times in the state’s Legislature, though it did not make it to the governor’s desk when the DFL controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office in 2013 and 2014. Republicans have stood against the bill in the past and in 2019 tried to cement Pawlenty’s 2003 rule change into state law.

Now that the DFL took control of the Senate back from Republicans in November and gained full control of state government once again, the bill may have its shot of becoming law. Gomez called on her colleagues to make it up to Minnesota’s immigrant community by working to pass a bill this year.

So far, the bill has a lot of momentum: it’s already getting hearings in the transportation committees of both chambers the second week of session, and support from DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

“This has simply been a cruel policy that did nothing good,” Walz said at a news conference with supporters Jan. 3, the first day of the 2023 legislative session.

Besides immigration advocates, DFL lawmakers and Walz, the bill enjoys support from a broad group of interests. Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis appeared at the same news conference as Walz last week. On Tuesday, the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce St. Paul Police Department testified in favor of the bill Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services also backs the change.


Advocates, the chamber, faith groups, Unidos MN and others offered testimony on the bill Tuesday morning and were expected to continue in the evening. Others that testified Tuesday morning included people who had experienced hardship due to the license ban.

A companion bill sponsored by Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, is set to receive a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Senate Republicans called the DFL proposal "an overreach and abuse of one-party rule," and expressed concerns that the policy could open up channels for fraud by people in the U.S. illegally.

“There are no precautions to prevent someone from using this ID to vote, sign up for benefits, or to be differentiated in any way from a legal citizen's driver's license," said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, the leading minority member on the Senate Transportation Committee. "We all want safe roads and we can do it in a way that doesn’t completely overrun our system with fraud and abuse.”

This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 10 to add Republicans' response. It was originally posted at 1:20 p.m. Jan. 10.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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