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Three bills aim to give some immigrants the right to drive legally in N.H

Last Tuesday advocates pro-immigration testified for the right of getting a driver's license.
Gabriela Lozada
Last Tuesday advocates pro-immigration testified for the right of getting a driver's license.

The transportation committee is studying three bills primarily sponsored by Rep. George Sykes from Lebanon (D) who has support from local immigrants’ rights organizations.

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Similar legislation about obtaining licenses was introduced last year but did not pass. But this year, advocates are optimistic.

Here is a summary of these bills.

Real ID licenses without proof of citizenship

The first bill proposed is H.B. 1463, relative to Real ID driver licenses, a type of driver’s license allowing people to travel inside the U.S without a passport.

Right now, a person who is on a path to legal status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can not obtain this type of license because their application appears in the system as pending, a condition that the Department of Motor Vehicles does not recognize.

If the bill passed, the DMV could issue licenses to these individuals and would be prohibited from asking for proof of citizenship – a burden for immigrants who otherwise can’t obtain this type of identification. If the law passes in New Hampshire, asylum seekers and people waiting for Temporary Protected Status, like essential workers or students, could qualify to get a license.

Sarah Knoy from the American Friends Service Committee gave testimony in favor of the law last Tuesday in a room with a dozen of immigrants who want to see the law approved.

“A person can be in New Hampshire 100 percent legally but can be waiting for their papers for over a year because of bureaucratic delays,” Knoy said, including that lacking a license during that time can cause them not to go to work or anywhere else.

Nadia Gonzales, a resident of Nashua who immigrated from Mexico, testified she felt fear of driving her kids to school when she didn’t have a license.

“My kids were terrified to see the police,” she said. Gonzales is part of a Latino leadership program that supports these laws that can facilitate the life of immigrants in the U.S.

But those who oppose the bill say the New Hampshire DMV is complying with federal laws, and there is not much the DMV can do to can do. According to Jeff Oberdank from the registration department of the DMV, an application to be considered a resident or citizen submitted or pending doesn’t mean approval – the institution has no way of knowing that person’s immigration status.

He also said submitted documents could be counterfeit because they do not have a database to validate them.

Privacy of information from immigration agencies

According to Sykes, H.B. 1666, the second law discussed, could solve a public safety problem of drivers on the road without a license who, in some instances, are undocumented.

These immigrants are always at risk of being deported. Still, advocates say the DMV should not be the agency that facilitates those detentions by sharing files with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

If the bill is approved, the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles will prohibit sharing personal information with immigration enforcement agencies.

Sarah Knoy testified again to tell the story of an immigrant woman detained by ICE after a speeding ticket in New Hampshire.

“A warning became a nightmare for this family. Those children still today are terrified when they see a police officer. She's back at home now, but the trauma lingers,” she said.

Those who oppose the bill say it has the potential to make New Hampshire a sanctuary state because it will be tough for federal authorities to access driver's records.

Driver’s licenses for asylum seekers

Finally, H.B. 1093 would permit nonresidents living in New Hampshire to obtain a 180-day temporary driver's license while waiting on their asylum status application. A difference from HB1463 is this bill includes a regular license, not just a Real ID.

Grace Kindeke from the American Friends Service Committee testified, “expanding licensing eligibility creates a community and allows immigrants to move and work safely in the state.”

Republican Rep. Dennis Thompson responded to Kindeke’s testimony by asking if she was petitioning to legalize undocumented immigrants. She responded, “the license does not offer anything other than the ability to drive.”

Rep. Sykes, the bill's primary sponsor, said it's better to identify people and know who they are, where they live, and if they're competent drivers. He asked the committee to be aware of New Hampshire’s changing demographics especially among Latino communities, which comprise four percent of the people in New Hampshire according to the 2020 census.

The committee doesn’t have a date to vote yet. But Sadiel Montero, a Nashua resident from Costa Rica, asked the representatives in Spanish to put their hands in their hearts when they vote.

“It is essential we all can have a license to drive without fear,” she said.

Corrected: February 3, 2022 at 5:06 PM EST
A previous version of this story misspelled George Sykes' name. It is George, not Georges. NHPR regrets the error.
Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.
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