Law allows undocumented to get licenses and NJ sees boom in permits

MONSY ALVARADO, SOCIAL JUSTICE WRITER | JULY 28, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Busy at the Motor Vehicle Commission

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New Jersey has issued roughly 100,000 new permits since the state allowed residents regardless of immigration status to apply for driver’s licenses nearly three months ago, a jump of more than 65% from same period in previous years.

The agency issued 60,000 new permits during that same period in past years, said William Connolly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

“We do not track immigration status of our license holders, so we cannot verify if the difference is entirely due to newly eligible New Jerseyans,’’ Connolly said in an email.

That number also does not include driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants who may have transferred their licenses from other states. Connolly said in those cases, those drivers’ licenses would be counted as renewals or out-of-state transfers.

The measure allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses went into effect on May 1, more than a year after it was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2019. The law allows two types of driver’s licenses in the state: one compliant with the federal Real ID Act that would let users board domestic flights, and one strictly for driving that would be issued to immigrants without legal status, certain senior citizens and others who lack documentation. It is estimated that the law could benefit around 450,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state.

Delayed because of COVID-19

The licenses were supposed to be available in January, but the implementation was delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the closure of MVC agencies across the state. The closures also created backlogs and affected the training needed to implement the law.

In January, the state announced that the licenses would be available starting May 1.

The increased number of applicants for driver’s licenses has also led to difficulties in getting appointments at the MVC, frustrating those seeking permits and licenses. On Tuesday afternoon, the MVC’s online appointment system showed very few available appointments at 23 MVC sites across the state that offer permits and driver’s licenses. Appointments for other services, such as license renewals, titles and registration were available.

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, which was among the organizations pushing for the law that allows undocumented immigrants in the state to obtain the licenses, asked why MVC didn’t allocate more resources for support staff to get the permits and licenses processed.

“MVC had nearly 3 years of notice and more than enough time to engage advocates and the community to prepare,’’ the organization tweeted on Tuesday.

Connolly, of the MVC, said  the agency is processing 25% more transactions per week than before the pandemic.

“Increased demand for NJMVC services across the board coupled with health and staffing challenges has meant the shift of many appointments online,’’ he said. “While many residents are able to take advantage of many of our newly-online services and resources, we are aware and understanding of the issues that New Jerseyans are encountering with obtaining appointments for licensing and permits.”

He added that to increase capacity, the agency will continue to add appointments, enhance staffing, and make customers aware of online resources that may save them a trip to the MVC agencies.

Waiting weeks for appointments

Helen Zamora-Bustos, a community organizer for the Wind of the Spirit, said she knows of people who have waited several weeks for an appointment. She said most of the time, newly available appointments show up online late at night. Several people have had to travel to MVC agencies far away from where they live, she said.

“Now when you go to the website, most of the day, like 90% of the day you can’t find an appointment, and when they put up new dates it’s very late at night, and its going to be 100 appointments distributed among 26 agencies,’’ she said. “So it makes it very difficult.”

Zamora-Bustos said once applicants secure an appointment, sometimes they are turned away because some of their documentation —  required to meet six points of identification — is not approved even though it should be accepted under the rules and regulations.

“There are so many inconsistencies on what documents they accept and the training different agents get at different agencies and it’s ridiculous,” she said.

Francisco Valentin, of Somerset, is in the process of acquiring his license and has an appointment scheduled for next month in Edison to take his written test. Valentin, who emigrated from Mexico 27 years ago, said that he dreams of being able to drive during weekend family trips, as well as to his landscaping jobs throughout Somerset and Middlesex counties. He said now he depends on his 21-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen, to drive him to work.

“It’s been too much of a risk to drive without a license, so with a license we will have thousands more opportunities,’’ he said. “This will let me go out with my family without a fear that we will be detained, so we have to take the opportunity that has been given to us.”

Valentin took the written test last month and failed, but now is studying the questions in the driver’s license manual. He said in the past he had relied on YouTube videos to help him learn the rules of the road.

“That was a mistake,’’ he said.

New Jersey is the 15th state along with the District of Columbia to adopt legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses. Other states include New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and California.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-07-28 03:28:00 -0700