Driver’s licenses for undocumented is not a panacea

By Arlene Violet, Esq.
Posted 7/8/22

This legislative year the Rhode Island General Assembly agreed to allow the issuance of driver’s permits/licenses for undocumented immigrants who can prove they have income and income tax …

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Driver’s licenses for undocumented is not a panacea


This legislative year the Rhode Island General Assembly agreed to allow the issuance of driver’s permits/licenses for undocumented immigrants who can prove they have income and income tax deductions in the state. Those listed as a dependent on a state tax return will also qualify for a driver’s card.

While not exactly calling it a “license,” the net effect of the card will allow driving privileges. I am conflicted about this development.

On the one hand I understand and appreciate the arguments to allow driver’s privilege to the undocumented. In passing a driver’s test, the applicant learns the rules of the road so there will be some safety benefit. Holding insurance (albeit not bulletproof since far too many people even now buy it for a month in order to get a license or renewal and then let it lapse) will provide some protection on the roads following an accident. It treats people as human by making their lives easier traveling to work, doctors’ appointments, or recreation.

On the other hand it will be important to make sure the card is visually distinguishable from a real driver’s license. I am of the mind that even U.S. citizens from other states shouldn’t vote in Rhode Island elections, let alone those who are not citizens at all.

Voting should be the prerogative of an actual citizen. The card should cause no confusion when folks queue up to vote at a busy precinct.

The biggest concern I have is the assembly of such a list. The legislation says it is not public record, but just recently RIPTA was hacked and personal information on state workers who weren’t even associated with the bus company was exposed.

Even more concerning is access to the information from a hostile anti-immigrant administration in D.C. Just three years ago, both the federal executive branch headed by Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress implemented draconian laws.

What if the Republicans regain control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, and the administration wants access to the list of admittedly undocumented immigrants, complete with addresses to find them?

Rhode Islanders are not only subject to state laws but, as citizens of the nation, to federal law. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) laws authorize the federal agency to root out illegals, and what better way is it than to demand the information from the State? Will Rhode Island officials refuse? You might think so, but if the usual “carrot and stick” approach, i.e. provide the information or the feds will withhold hundreds of millions of federal dollars until the state complies, then how certain are you politicians won’t capitulate?

It is highly unlikely that defending folks here illegally will outweigh the desire for federal dollars for educational, transportation, etc. for the citizens who are here legally.

Some changes that appear for the better are actually changes for the worst. I cannot imagine a Rhode Island lawyer who would advise an illegal immigrant to pursue a license, at least while the political landscape remains as it is in the foreseeable future.

It will be interesting to see if undocumented immigrants sign up for the license procurement  program or whether distrust of government inhibits them from doing so.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.