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Unable to Get Driver’s License, Many Undocumented Immigrants Drive Without Insurance

By Aaron Crowe

Illegal Boarder CrossingUndocumented immigrants can find themselves in a Catch-22 if they want to drive and have auto insurance in most parts of the United States.

They can’t get a driver’s license in most states, and without a license, they often can’t buy auto insurance.

“They’re forced to drive without insurance and it’s a very dangerous situation,” says Bruce Coane, an attorney in Texas who specializes in immigration law.

All but 11 states and the District of Columbia prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining a driver’s license. Without a driver’s license, most auto insurance companies won’t sell them an insurance policy, potentially creating legal, financial and other problems for the drivers and anyone involved in an accident with them.

Some insurers will still sell insurance to unlicensed drivers by having other requirements, but not having a license limits a driver’s options in obtaining insurance.

How many uninsured drivers?

There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants — also called unauthorized immigrants — in the United States as of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. That accounts for 3.5 percent of the nation’s population.

Undocumented immigrants aren’t U.S. citizens, and many are allowed to legally live and work in the U.S. if they have a work permit or green card that starts the process of becoming a permanent resident.

While President Obama has expanded deportation relief to almost half of the unauthorized immigrant population, 39 states won’t grant them a driver’s license — a document needed to get insurance and used in many other forms of daily life. Without being able to get a license, they may be driving uninsured.

While it’s difficult to know how many undocumented immigrants are driving without licenses and/or insurance, there are statistics on the overall percentage of uninsured drivers.

The Insurance Information Institute reports that 12.6 percent of drivers are uninsured nationwide, according to a 2014 study by the Insurance Research Council.

All states except New Hampshire require liability insurance, which pays for the other driver’s medical, vehicle repair and other costs when the policyholder is at fault in an accident.

Reasons for being uninsured go beyond being unable to obtain a driver’s license. Some people can’t afford insurance or may have so many traffic violations that their insurance premiums are too high.

Exceptions and other options

Eleven states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. The states are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii (in 2016), Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

A California law went into effect this year allowing undocumented immigrants who are state residents to obtain a driver’s license after they’ve passed driving exams. During the first six months of the year, the state issued 397,000 driver’s licenses to undocumented applicants, or more than half of the 759,000 licenses issued during that time, according to the California Department of Insurance.

Coane, the immigration lawyer in Texas, says he recommends a simple solution to some of his clients: Travel to a kinder state that will give them a license, and then return with an out-of-state license to the state where they live that won’t give them a license.

The friendly state may require applicants to live in the state for 30 days, which immigrants can do by staying with friends or family, or living in a motel. If they’re stopped for speeding in Texas, for example, but can show a New Mexico driver’s license, they may get a warning or ticket instead of being taken to jail for being an undocumented immigrant, Coane says.

But even if they have a driver’s license from another state, an officer may still require them to get a license in the state they live in within 30 days of an infraction, Coane says.

In Texas, he says, they’re more likely to be arrested for not having a license, while having an out-of-state license will just result in a ticket. In immigration court, Coane says he’s represented plenty of people who have been denied bond after being arrested because they were cited six or seven times for driving without a license. That can lead to deportation, he says.

For undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, they could get a driver’s license through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in all 50 states and D.C. Called DACA for short, the program is no longer accepting requests due to a federal court order.

Still driving

It’s a fallacy to think that not allowing someone to get a driver’s license will prevent them from driving, says Alfredo Lozano, an immigration lawyer in San Antonio, TX. Undocumented immigrants have children to shuttle around and jobs to get to, and the lack of a license is unlikely to stop them from driving, Lozano says. What it will most likely do is prevent them from obtaining insurance, he says.

“The majority of undocumented people, the last thing they want to do is be on anybody’s radar,” he says.

Not having a license will at least get them a ticket if they’re stopped, Lozano says. One solution is to use a driver’s license from their home country, such as Mexico, to show to an officer, he says. It’s legal to drive with a license from your home country, he says, and the excuse of “I just moved here” can work with an out-of-state license.

If they do get a ticket for not having a license or insurance, or for any driving infraction, many undocumented immigrants won’t fight the ticket because they fear the judge may send them for in immigration hearing, Lozano says.

Lozano estimates that 50-60 percent of his clients who are getting a green card through their spouse or child don’t have a driver’s license.

Other ways to get insurance

Even without a driver’s license, there are ways to get auto insurance. Some Texas insurers sell liability insurance with any government identification, such as a passport, Lozano says.

This at least covers undocumented immigrants from possible lawsuits they might face if they didn’t have liability insurance.

Sometimes having a work permit can be enough help to getting a driver’s license, Lozano says. A work permit can allow someone to get a Social Security number, which can then make it easier to get a driver’s license, he says.

Another problem for people without a license is buying a vehicle and getting the vehicle title, Lozano says. That can be overcome by buying a car from a friend and keeping the vehicle registered in the name of the original owner.

What people should remember, especially in states that don’t provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, Lozano says, is that the main purpose of a driver’s license is to be able to drive legally so families can get to work and get their kids to school. Withholding it as a symbol of keeping tabs on who is in the U.S. legally doesn’t accomplish much, he says.

“A driver’s license doesn’t give you any status in this country anyway,” he says.