The NCSL Blog


By Ann Morse, Susan Frederick and Ben Husch

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has moved to bar New Yorkers from the Trusted Traveler program, which allows faster security checks when returning to the U.S.

Enrollment in Global Entry and several other expedited-travel programs has been suspended for all residents of New York State in a bid to force local authorities to submit to directives by the Department of Homeland Security.Credit...Marilynn K. Yee/The New York TimesThe DHS took this action in response to New York’s “Green Light Law,” allowing unauthorized immigrants to receive a driver’s license, and prohibiting disclosure of licensing information to the department.

In addition, Senator Marcia Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced the ‘‘Stop Greenlighting Driver Licenses for Illegal Immigrants Act,’’ which would withhold critical federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funding to states granting driver’s licenses to individuals who do not have proof of U.S. citizenship.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to allow individuals to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Applicants must submit documents proving their identity, date of birth and residence in the state. Applicants can be citizens or noncitizens, including permanent, temporary or unauthorized immigrants, who do not need a Real ID-compliant license.

These driver’s licenses are not Real ID compliant, which requires a social security number or proof of lawful presence, and must include a statement on the license that they are not to be used for federal purposes. All travelers must provide a Real ID-compliant license or passport to board an aircraft starting Oct. 1, 2020.

Proponents argue that offering driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants promotes public safety by ensuring that immigrants are tested on rules of the road, licensed and identified, and insured in case of accident.

Opponents raise concerns about providing a state benefit to those who violated immigration laws, the challenge in validating foreign identification documents, or national security concerns.

In 2019, New Jersey, New York and Oregon became the latest states to extend driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants.   

New Jersey prohibits the motor vehicle commission from disclosing information to any federal, state or local law enforcement agency for immigration purposes without the consent of the individual, a warrant, court order or subpoena, unless such restriction is contrary to federal law. The commission may not retain copies of documents submitted to establish eligibility for a license or identification card.

New York’s law, known as the “Green Light Law," became effective Dec. 19, 2019. New York’s law also prohibits the Department of Motor Vehicles from disclosing records to any agency that primarily enforces immigration law without a lawful court order or judicial warrant. 

Other states have also acted to protect the confidentiality of information submitted to obtain state driver’s licenses, with the goal of encouraging immigrants to apply, be tested and get insured. In 2018, California enacted privacy legislation related to driver’s licenses, prohibiting disclosing information except in response to a subpoena for individual records in a criminal proceeding or a court order, or in response to a law enforcement request to address an urgent health or safety need. The driver’s license may not be used as evidence of an individual’s citizenship or immigration status for any purpose.

In 2013, Nevada created a driver's authorization card for applicants, regardless of legal status, and prohibited the release of information relating to legal status for purposes relating to the enforcement of immigration laws.

In 2005, Utah enacted a driver’s privilege card, recognizing that immigrants residing in the state should be licensed and insured to reduce the likelihood of accidents by unlicensed drivers and improve insurance rates.

Additional Resources

Ann Morse is federal affairs counsel for NCSL’s Immigrant Policy Project. Susan Frederick is senior federal affairs counsel in NCSL's Washington, D.C., office. Ben Husch is federal affairs counsel to NCSL's National Resources and Infrastructure Committee.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.