ST. PAUL, Minnesota (FOX 9) – Democrats on Tuesday introduced a proposal to make people without legal status in Minnesota eligible for driver’s licenses after winning support from business groups and at least two law enforcement officials.
The bill, called “driver’s licenses for all,” would allow people without legal status to take the Minnesota knowledge test and get a driver’s license. Democrats plan to move it through House and Senate committees this week, preparing it for a vote later this month.
That would reverse a 2003 rule change made by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose administration barred people without legal status from obtaining permits in the name of security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For the past 20 years, advocates have tried unsuccessfully to reverse the policy, failing to gain support when the DFL controlled the Legislature a decade ago.
“This is the unfinished business of this Legislature and this state,” said state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the bill. “This community was left behind in those conversations. I want to be honest 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 difficult choice: drive without a license and face arrest, or be excluded from society without a vehicle. The problem is particularly acute in Twin Cities suburbs and rural areas that lack public transit coverage, they said.
“Without a driver’s license, I was constantly walking home at 10 p.m. in winter storms, just because I was afraid of getting pulled over,” said Sarah Silva of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee. “Your words of support and faith mean nothing until the bill is passed.”
While Republicans expressed concern about the bill, business groups supported it.
Minnesota is facing one of the toughest labor markets in the country as a result of an aging workforce and a wave of retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Immigrants fill labor gaps in service sectors, including restaurants and hotels. They also form 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 for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “They could be our only source of population growth in the next decade if patterns continue.”
Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka and St. Paula Shari Falkowski also supported the law change, which they said would make Minnesota’s roads safer. That would allow law enforcement officers to better track Minnesota’s repeat traffic violators, Soyka said.
“The reality is that most of these parties are probably driving for business anyway, and having the right licenses with the right training increases safety for everyone involved,” he said.
Republicans have expressed concern, questioning whether the bill lacks safeguards that would prevent people without legal status from using their driver’s licenses to vote or receive government benefits.
“It’s a conundrum for us because we know (immigrants) are an important part of the jobs that exist, but at the same time we know they’re breaking federal law,” said state Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca.
Senate Republicans said they plan to examine the DFL proposal at a committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
Secretary of State Steve Simon played down concerns about the vote. State law prescribes a criminal offense if a person votes while ineligible to vote. The office has the ability to compare people who have been granted temporary driver’s licenses with a list of people who do not have the right to vote, the spokeswoman said.