Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The costs of living in a car-centric culture can be particularly hard on undocumented immigrants.
In America, everyone pays a hefty fee for sprawl. But the country’s car-centric culture is particularly burdensome for immigrants—especially those without papers. For them, to drive or not to drive can be not just a question of convenience, but of survival. And it has no easy answers.
Over the past few decades, more immigrants have bypassed the dense, transit-rich urban hubs where they used to settle for more sprawling metros in the Sunbelt that offer jobs and affordable living. They’ve also increasingly taken to the suburbs. These shifting settlement patterns mean that more and more immigrants rely on cars to go to work, drop their kids at school, see the doctor, and buy groceries.
Most states don’t allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Doing so would condone their illegal presence in the country, immigration hard-liners have argued. The first consequence of this stance for immigrants is lost productivity for workers: Long commutes on unreliable public transport can mean fewer work hours or even unemployment.
But by driving without a license, immigrants stand to lose much more. Besides a few hundred dollars in fines, they risk deportation.
In Georgia, driving without a license is a felony
In 2010, The New York Times detailed the case of Felipa Leonor Valencia, a mom with a U.S.-born teenage daughter, who was placed into deportation proceedings after she was hit by another car in Georgia. Valencia, like hundreds of thousands of others in the state, had been driving without a license. (Nationwide, 4 million undocumented immigrants drove without licenses in 2010.) “We have to work to support our kids, so we have to drive,” Valencia, who had been living in Georgia for 17 years at the time, told The Times. “If we drive, we get stopped by the police. The first thing they ask is, ‘Can I see your license?’ ‘Don’t have one? Go to jail.’ And from jail to deportation.”
In recent years, Georgia has enacted even harsher laws, making driving without a license a felony. Being caught behind the wheel without documentation four times in five years can result in thousands of dollars in fines and up to five years in prison. With a felony charge, undocumented individuals were priorities for removal under the Obama administration’s 2014 enforcement strategy which, in his own words, meant to target “felons not families.” (In practice, that distinction—flawed as it was—wasn’t always honored by the previous administration.)
Supporters of these punishments maintain that they improve public safety (even though research shows that getting undocumented drivers licensed and insured decreases hit-and-run rates). Perhaps more accurately, they are enacted with a different goal in mind: “attrition through enforcement”—pushed by anti-immigrant groups like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). According to CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian, strict driving laws are among policies that make the lives of undocumented immigrants so difficult that they “give up and deport themselves,” which will help reduce their numbers “to a manageable nuisance.”
The impact of Georgia’s “felony driving law” hasn’t been limited to undocumented immigrants, though. A 2016 analysis by the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and the Advancement Project found that it encouraged rampant profiling of black and Latino residents—including U.S. citizens.
Even the right to drive doesn’t make them safe
Under the Trump administration, anyone without papers is fair game for deportation if they show up on the radar of federal immigration authorities. Driving—even where it’s legal—makes that a more likely scenario.
In the liberal state of California, almost 80 percent of the workforce needs to drive to get to work. In 2015, the state passed a law allowing undocumented residents to apply for licenses.
But a recent report released by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area highlights the racial disparities in traffic citations every step of the way. For one, Hispanic drivers are far more likely to be cited for traffic offenses. Fines associated with these offenses in California are among the highest in the country, and a traffic amnesty program helping low-income drivers pay them off recently ended. That means more and more people will be unable to pay them. Among them, it’s the people of color who are more likely to be arrested. Per the report:
In Bay Area counties, white drivers are approximately half as likely to be booked in County jail for driving after failing to pay a traffic violation, relative to the county census population average, whereas drivers in the Hispanic or Other racial categories are roughly four times as likely.
Once an undocumented person is booked into jail, their fingerprints are shared with the federal immigration authorities—and this is true in so-called “Sanctuary Cities.” Even if the police in these cities don’t hand them over, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can easily track them down using other information the city agencies share with them. As my former colleague George Joseph wrote in NPR, even liberal cities, like L.A. and Seattle, readily give ICE access to specific police databases.
If that approach doesn’t work, ICE can also go straight to the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In May 2016, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) released information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed “a complex network of relationships and systems of communication” between state DMVs and ICE. For one, ICE has access to the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (Nlets), which contains details about accidents and traffic violations. NILC explained why that matters:
If ICE is interested in particular individuals, it can use this information to locate them. In addition, in a decentralized manner, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) field offices are in regular contact through email and other forms of communication with state DMVs outside of the formal networks, to obtain information and photos in driver’s license and vehicle registration databases and to collaborate with the state agencies in immigration enforcement.
This recently played out in Vermont, another state where undocumented immigrants can drive. In 2015, Abdel Razaq Rababah, a Jordanian man who had applied for a license, was turned over to ICE. “The State of Vermont cannot hold out the promise of legal driving privileges on the one hand and the threat of immigration arrest on the other,” ACLU staff attorney Jay Diaz said in a statement at the time. The long tradition of ICE trolling DMV data has nevertheless continued after that case settled in 2016. And immigrant advocates are not at all optimistic that the Trump administration’s ICE will pull back from it in the future.
At the end of the day, opponents of illegal immigration may conclude that these measures are justified to weed out those whose offense is crossing the border illegally. But it’s useful to question whether the weight of that punishment—deportation—fits the offense for which these immigrants are being punished: driving in a country that’s built for cars.