Allowing All Undocumented Students to Get Driver’s and Professional Licenses Would Help Them Thrive
Expanding higher education access for undocumented students isn’t just a matter of lifting restrictions on college enrollment and financial aid. To help undocumented students reach their full potential, states should extend access to driver’s and occupational and professional licenses to all individuals, regardless of their immigration status. Unfortunately, according to a new report from The Education Trust, “Higher Education Access and Success for Undocumented Students Start With 9 Key Criteria,” multiple states have policies in place that effectively prevent many undocumented students from pursuing postsecondary education and careers in fields that require state-granted licensing. While federal law lets states decide who can apply for driver’s and professional and commercial licenses, many states still bar undocumented individuals from obtaining them. As Ed Trust’s research makes clear, these restrictions based on immigration status hurt countless young individuals and communities, while hindering economic growth.
Driver’s license restrictions make it needlessly difficult for many undocumented students to attend classes and safely engage in other daily living activities, like going to work or doctor’s visits. Restrictions on professional and commercial licenses make it hard for students to capitalize on their fields of study and reach their full potential, needlessly preventing qualified people from entering professions with serious staffing shortages, such as nursing. What’s more, by prohibiting undocumented individuals from obtaining driver’s and professional licenses, states are harming their own economies. States should make professional and commercial licensure and driver’s licenses accessible to all, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.
The Problem: Not All Undocumented Students Have Access to a Driver’s License
Ed Trust researchers looked at how policies in 15 U.S. states affect undocumented students’ ability to pursue a degree and consider how college access and attainment for this underserved population might be improved . When the researchers examined state driver’s license regulations in these states, they found that only nine grant driver’s license access to all undocumented residents. In the other six states, only those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are eligible to apply for a driver’s license. Limiting driver’s license access to DACA recipients is not sufficient to support undocumented youths. As a result of ongoing litigation, first-time applicants can no longer apply to the DACA program, and many of them are high school and college-aged students who would have aged into the program. An estimated 800,000 K-12 and higher education students are undocumented. Of those, only 200,000 (or 25%) are current DACA recipients. Legislation aimed only at DACA recipients leaves the other 75% unprotected.
Providing undocumented people would not only help ensure their safety but make roads safer for everyone. For example, after New Mexico passed legislation that allowed all residents to apply for a driver’s license, traffic fatality rates and the rate of uninsured vehicles on state roads dropped significantly.
Having a driver’s license is a must for many students, particularly for those who live in areas where public transportation options are limited. What’s more, commuter students often need to be able to drive to partake in off-campus professional development opportunities, like paid internships, which can help offset college costs. Without a license, undocumented students would have no safe way to get to school, work, the doctor’s office, the hospital, the grocery store, or go about their daily lives, since driving without a license ups the risk of being pulled over and arrested — and potentially even deported — for a minor traffic offense, such as having a broken taillight. Imagine how hard it must be to go to college and concentrate in class when you know that driving to and from campus every day carries a threat of deportation. More than 120,000 undocumented individuals with traffic offenses were deported between 2004 and 2020 — including more than 22,000 young people aged 18 to 24.
What Not Having a Driver's License Means for Undocumented Students
Not only does being legally allowed to drive a car cut an undocumented resident’s odds of being deported because of a routine traffic stop, but it relieves some of the daily fear and frustration they experience while moving around town while enabling them to seek vital basic services and tap into more job and educational opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach. However, it’s important that states extend driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals ensure that their personal information is not shared with any third parties, including federal immigration authorities, lest that put these individuals at risk of deportation.
As an undergraduate student at Rutgers University-Newark, Esder Chong helped lead the “Let’s Drive New Jersey” campaign to pass legislation that would let all state residents apply for a driver’s license, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Esder worked tirelessly on the campaign because, as a DACA recipient and full-time student, she understood firsthand how crucial it is for students and other members of the undocumented community to have the freedom, autonomy, and opportunities that come with being able to drive themselves and their loved ones safely. Esder says, “Mobility, the freedom of movement, should be a right. And this is part of what the immigrant rights movement is about: the freedom to travel without fear.”
The Problem: Not All Undocumented Students Have Access to Professional Licenses
While analyzing state licensing policies, Ed Trust researchers also found that some states block many undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional and commercial licenses, which are often needed to practice law or medicine, for example, or to become a barber, cosmetologist, electrician, funeral director, mental-health practitioner, nurse, plumber, teacher, or welder. In fact, eight of the 15 states examined prohibit or do not affirmatively allow undocumented individuals to obtain any professional or commercial licenses.
State policies prohibiting undocumented people from obtaining a professional or commercial license may prevent an undocumented student from working in their chosen field, even if they obtain a degree in it. Such policies are shortsighted since empowering undocumented students to meet their career goals benefits them individually and bolsters their families and local communities. What’s more, allowing these individuals to earn professional and commercial licenses could help address worsening labor shortages in critical fields like teaching, nursing, and caregiving. While 71,000 DACA recipients currently work in those fields, many DACA recipients and undocumented individuals are barred from them, due to myopic licensing policies in some states. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, as of July 2022, there were nearly 2.2 million open jobs in the education and health-services sectors — that’s about twice as many as five years ago. And as the U.S. population skews increasingly older, demand will only increase in fields like healthcare.
Jessica Astudillo — a DACA recipient who has lived in the U.S. since she was two — is a pediatric medical resident facing an uncertain future due to her immigration status and New York’s restrictions on professional and commercial licenses.
In 2016, the New York Board of Regents adopted regulations that allow DACA recipients to obtain professional licenses, provided they meet all other requirements for licensure besides citizenship. Unfortunately, litigation and ongoing legal attacks on DACA are leaving the future of the program and its recipients up in the air. DACA was never intended to be a permanent solution to protect undocumented youth and should the program end, Jessica would no longer be able to practice as a pediatrician in New York. Despite having a medical degree, Jessica would be unable to renew her physician’s license unless the state passes legislation that opens professional licensure to all residents.
The Solution: State Policymakers Must Expand Driver’s and Professional Licenses to All Undocumented Students
Esder and Jessica’s stories show how restrictive state policies can keep undocumented students from reaching their full potential, to the detriment of communities and U.S. society at large. More equitable and supportive state laws that let undocumented individuals obtain a driver’s license and/or professional and commercial licenses would help ensure that undocumented students have a bright future and might go a long way toward bolstering college persistence and completion rates among undocumented students.
It should be noted that while DACA has improved the lives of nearly 600,000 undocumented young people, it doesn’t grant undocumented individuals full access to the opportunities available to their U.S. citizen or resident peers — and leaves many more undocumented young people behind. In states where only DACA recipients have access to driver’s and professional and commercial licenses, undocumented individuals without DACA remain locked out of careers and services that they would otherwise be eligible for were it not for their immigration status.
States should heed Ed Trust’s recommendations and allow all residents to apply for a driver’s license, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status, while also making sure to safeguard individuals’ personal data. States should also expand access to professional and commercial licenses to all residents, regardless of immigration or citizenship status. Doing so would help meet the needs of the undocumented community and empower undocumented students to live their lives with less fear and more confidence that they can achieve their full potential.
Ali Procopio is the university program director at FWD.us