Driver's Licenses for All bill would have great impact in rural communities like Worthington, advocates say

After more than a decade of considering similar legislation, a bill allowing undocumented individuals to obtain a driver’s license is one step closer to becoming law in Minnesota.

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WORTHINGTON — After passing through the Minnesota House of Representatives, a bill allowing undocumented individuals to obtain a driver’s license is one step closer to becoming law in Minnesota.

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While H.F. 4 — also known as the “Driver’s Licenses for All” bill — passed through the house on a 69-60 vote, similar legislation has circled the senate and house floor for over a decade. The ability for any state resident to obtain a license was altered in 2003, under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, when applicants became required to provide proof of legal immigration status. Now, proponents of the Driver’s Licenses for All bill are hopeful for the impact the legislation would have, especially in rural communities.

“The need in Greater Minnesota is especially pronounced,” said Sara Karki, a supervising attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota’s southern office. “You can’t just jump on a bus and get to the next town over and a lot of people are working in remote or rural settings where driving is the only way to get there. Being able to do that safely and legally … is going to be a game changer for the families in those areas.”

The ILCM is part of the Freedom to Drive MN coalition, which has worked toward restoring access to Minnesota Driver’s Licenses and state IDs for undocumented immigrants, citing safety and economic benefits to passing the legislation.

Allowing Minnesotans without immigration status to procure a driver’s license ensures they pass a written and driving test.


“Having people on the road who don’t have a license is a risk for them but it’s also a risk for other people,” said Karki. “Driving in Minnesota is hard. Knowing the rules here is really important for the safety of everyone on the roads.”

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Here in Worthington, local advocate Jessica Velasco, with Unidos MN, points to additional safety concerns, with many residents without access to a license or vehicle walking or biking to get where they need to go.

“Our public transportation doesn’t meet the needs always, and you can’t always rely on someone to take you where you need to go,” she said, “So you see folks walking … on the hottest days, on the coldest days, because it’s a need and they have to grab groceries.”

Between weather conditions and a lack of sidewalks or bike paths throughout the city of Worthington, Velasco said it’s not always the safest option to be walking, but it is, at times, the only option people have.

Giving undocumented drivers access to licenses has led to significant increases in insured drivers in states like Utah and New Mexico, both of which passed laws to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. Currently, 18 states allow undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, as well as Washington D.C.

For the estimated 81,000 unauthorized individuals residing in Minnesota, those who work full-time jobs could see an annual income increase between $2,000-$6,000 if permitted to obtain a license.

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“When you’ve got that lack of reliable transportation, and something happens and suddenly you can’t get to work, that person is losing their paycheck, and that affects their family,” said Velasco of the economic benefits of the driver’s license bill. “When you lose pay like that, it’s this cycle and that’s money that could be going back into the local economy.”

While opponents of the bill argue that allowing unauthorized immigrants access to driver’s licenses will add to voter fraud, Karki stated voter fraud is incredibly low in Minnesota and there are plenty of non-U.S. citizens with driver’s licenses already, like lawful permanent residents and international students who present no concerns about voting in elections.


“Driver’s licenses aren’t voting cards, they’re just one of many forms to verify identity,” she said. “People who aren’t U.S. citizens aren’t going to get amnesia because they’re able to get a driver’s license. They’re very clear on their status and what they can and cannot do.”

While access to a driver’s license doesn’t grant people the ability to vote, Velasco says the ability to interact with and participate in the community is what she sees as one of the biggest impacts of the Driver’s Licenses for All bill.

“Coming from a mom’s perspective, I know when I go out and see my kids play sports, there are people who aren't there because of that barrier,” she said. “But I envision having more parents alongside me on the bleachers or the stands, cheering their kids on because they can go and drive and take their kids to sporting events.”

While Worthington has a strong community that helps organize carpooling, and there are some public transportation options, having to rely on other people to get you where you need to go is a hardship, Velasco said. There’s a certain level of fear and uncertainty that she notes come with not knowing what you would do, how you would get somewhere without a vehicle or license in case of an emergency.

Additionally, through her close work with Worthington’s youth, Velasco says she’s talked to a lot of kids who don’t have access to the same opportunities because no one in their family has a driver’s license. As of 2018, 30,700 U.S. citizen children in Minnesota had parents who lacked immigration status and therefore, didn’t have the ability to get a driver’s license. It can make it difficult to get to school, participate in extracurricular activities, or travel outside of where they live.

“As a parent, you always want your kids to go out and see and experience what else is out there. It would hurt me to have to see my child stay in this bubble,” she said. “Worthington is a beautiful place, and it’s so diverse. But we want our young people to be able to go out and diversify and learn. We have to give them that option.”

The Driver’s Licenses for All bill is currently awaiting approval in the Minnesota Senate. If it passes, Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign the bill into law.

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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