By CATALINA CRUZ
Being denied the right to apply for a driver’s license merely based on immigration status alone creates unnecessary boundaries for families to thrive. For undocumented immigrants, it makes an already difficult life, even more difficult. I know this because, for more than 10 years, my mother and I lived as undocumented immigrants in New York City.
We fled violence and poverty in Colombia when I was 9 years old. We settled in Queens, and worked to survive and earn an opportunity for a better life. I watched my mother clean offices, sell tamales and take on any job that would help put food on the table, while making sure that I did well in school. But although her perseverance was limitless, our ability to succeed was limited by our immigration status.
At first, not having a driver’s license was only an inconvenience: my mother’s long train rides home after working the overnight shift or taking three kids to the doctor’s office via multiple train lines. But later, as I got older, I realized all the subtle ways that the lack of a driver’s license impacts entire families.
I grew up in parts of Queens that had transit deserts, often with the nearest subway station a 20-minute bus ride away. This meant my education and employment choices were immensely limited by my commute. I couldn’t consider colleges much farther than Manhattan and, even then, I had to travel hours on the train to get to my classes at John Jay.
Similarly, my mother was forced to turn down opportunities to earn more money because she had no way of getting to those jobs. She could only take work that was accessible by public transportation, pushing our family deeper into poverty.
Her inability to drive also meant that she couldn’t always be there to witness her hard work come to fruition. When I was inducted into the Honors Society, my mother couldn’t attend the award ceremony because she wouldn’t have been able to finish work and get to the event on time using the subway.
Our story is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers across the state are just like us — they want to be able to drive to our jobs, pick our kids up from school, or use a car in everyday life. We’re not looking for a free pass — we just want to have the same ability to apply for a driver’s license after passing road safety and proficiency exams to become qualified and eligible, just like everyone else.
«We’re not looking for a free pass — we just want to have the same ability to apply for a driver’s license after passing road safety and proficiency exams to become qualified and eligible, just like everyone else».
Twelve states, including California and even more politically conservative states such as Utah, have passed similar legislation. And more states, like Wisconsin, are well on their way. It’s shameful that New York, which is supposedly a beacon of justice and the gateway of opportunity, has fallen so far behind.
That can finally change this year. We can expand access to driver’s licenses for all New Yorkers by passing the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act. It wasn’t long ago that undocumented New Yorkers could legally drive, until a hasty and ill-informed executive order by a Republican governor took that right away. The fact that’s it’s still in effect nearly 20 years later, when there is no public policy justification for it, is a disgrace. We cannot double-down on that error by failing to correct it this year.
States that allow driver’s licenses for all have seen the number of uninsured motorists drop, while ensuring that all drivers are properly registered and regulated. And it will open the door to employment opportunities and economic activity as a new population of workers and customers will have the access they need to reach their jobs and businesses.
It’s time that we take a humane and common-sense approach to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to opportunity. It’s time for driver’s licenses for all.
Cruz represents Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in the Assembly.
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