DFL 'driver's licenses for all' plan draws support from business, law enforcement

Democrats advanced a proposal to make people who are in Minnesota without legal status eligible for a driver's license Tuesday after winning the support from business groups and at least two law enforcement officials.

The bill, dubbed "driver's licenses for all," would allow people without legal status to take Minnesota's knowledge test and receive a driver's license. Democrats plan to pass it through House and Senate committees this week, preparing it for floor votes later this month.

It would reverse a 2003 rule change by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose administration barred people without legal status from getting licenses in the name of security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. For the past 20 years, advocates have tried without success to reverse the policy, failing to win support when the DFL controlled the Legislature a decade ago.

"This is unfinished business of this Legislature and this state," said state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill's author. "This community was left behind in those conversations. I want to be straight up and say it was because of political expediency. It wasn’t because it was the right thing to do." 

Immigrant families told House lawmakers that their loved ones face a tough choice: drive without a license and face arrest or be shut out of society without a vehicle. The problem is especially acute in the Twin Cities suburbs and rural areas that lack public transit coverage, they said.

"Without a license, I walked home consistently at 10 p.m. in winter storms, just because I was scared of being pulled over," said Sarah Silva of the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committee. "Your words of support and faith mean nothing until the bill is passed." 

While Republicans raised concerns about the bill, business groups endorsed it. 

Minnesota faces one of the country's tightest labor markets as a result of an aging workforce and a wave of retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Immigrants fill workforce gaps in service sectors, including restaurants and hotels. They also make up a significant part of the workforce in agriculture and food processing.

"Immigrants are a key solution to our challenge," said Laura Bordelon, senior vice president of advocacy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "They may be our only source of population growth over the next decade if patterns hold."

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka and St. Paul Police Commander Shari Falkowski also endorsed a law change, which they said would make Minnesota's roads safer. It would allow law enforcement officials to better track repeat violators of Minnesota's traffic laws, Soyka said.

"The reality is a majority of these parties are probably driving anyway for work purposes, and to have them properly licensed with proper training increases the safety for everyone involved," he said.  

Republicans raised concerns, questioning whether the bill lacked safeguards that would prevent people without legal status from using their driver's licenses to vote or gain state benefits.

"That’s kind of a conundrum for us because we know (immigrants) are an important part of the jobs that are out there, but yet at the same time, we know they’re breaking federal law," said state Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca.

Senate Republicans said they planned to question the DFL proposal at a committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Secretary of State Steve Simon downplayed concerns about voting. State law makes it a felony for a person to vote while ineligible. The office has the ability to cross-reference people granted temporary driver's licenses with a list of people ineligible to vote, a spokeswoman said.