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Illegal immigrants may soon be able to get a Virginia driver’s license

Advocates hold a rally at the state Capitol to show support for legislation that would make all eligible Virginia residents the right to obtain a driveru00d5s license, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, on Thursday, January 9, 2020. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)
February 27, 2020

Areli Enriquez is 17, with no way to drive around Onley on the Eastern Shore.

Her parents died in a car crash last year, leaving her and her 14-year-old sister in the hands of legal guardians. Enriquez is a junior in high school and wants to go to community college for two years before going to the University of Virginia. But as an illegal immigrant, she can’t get a driver’s license.

“I have to rely on other people from place to place, and I do a lot of sports, and I do a lot of school activities, and I need to be able to have a car and drive, but I can’t, because obviously it’s not allowed for immigrants,” she said.

That could soon change, under legislation proposed by three Northern Virginia lawmakers that looks likely to pass the General Assembly after years of dying in committee meetings.

Enriquez and hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Capitol Thursday to rally for what they’re calling “Drivers licenses for all.”

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Carrying American flags and bundled up against the cold wind, they frequently broke out into chants of “Si se puede” (“yes we can”) and “Licencias si, promesas no” (“licenses yes, promises no”) during the hourlong rally that featured speeches — largely in Spanish — from those affected by not being able to have a driver’s license.

The bills — sponsored by Sens. Scott Surovell and Jennifer Boysko as well as Del. Kathy Tran — allow illegal immigrants to lawfully drive without showing their immigration status, although they differ in their approach.

One version allows people to pay $100 and get a one-year temporary driving privilege card that can be renewed annually. The other simply removes the requirement for people to show proof of U.S. citizenship when applying for a standard, non-Real ID driver’s license.

Both versions require applicants to show they pay taxes in Virginia and aren’t valid for voting, public benefit or federal purposes, such as flying or coming onto a military base starting in October, when the Real ID goes into effect. They also ban the release of a person’s information without a court order.

Thanks in part to a newly Democratic majority, each version has passed in their respective chambers and will now go into a conference, where a handful of senators and delegates will work out the differences before it goes to a final vote and on to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.

Currently, 15 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico allow immigrants to lawfully drive regardless of status.

“We are a commonwealth that believes in fairness and personal success and we need to do a better job of providing those tools to make that happen,” Boysko said at the rally.

Critics of the bill say it opens up the door to fraudulent voting and rewards immigrants who are here illegally. Lawmakers also voted in a separate bill to allow people to be automatically registered to vote when doing a transaction at the DMV, and Republicans say that could lead to immigrants being mistakenly registered to vote.

“I voted NO because I believe all immigrants should go through legal means to obtain citizenship before they are granted the benefits of American citizens,” Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, wrote in her weekly newsletter to constituents.

Virginia has required people applying for driver’s licenses to show they are legally authorized to be in the United States since 2004. Surovell said the 2004 law was passed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“There’s a lot of members of the legislature that don’t understand,” Surovell said at the rally. “There’s a lot of members that don’t have a lot of people who need this.”

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© 2020 The Virginian-Pilot