By Maryum Elnasseh
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — All four bills to expand driving privileges to immigrants living in Virginia illegally are dead – to the disappointment of dozens of immigrant rights advocates who showed up in support of the legislation.
Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said making driving privileges more accessible is long overdue.
“Virginia could have become a leader by passing legislation to grant driving privileges to all Virginians, regardless of their immigration status, but instead, some leaders chose political talking points over public safety,” Nguyen stated in a press release.
In the House, Dels. Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack, and Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, introduced separate bills to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue “driver privilege cards” to Virginia residents who meet certain criteria. While Bloxom’s HB 1843 required applicants to provide a passport as proof of identity, Tran’s HB 2025 did not.
Bloxom, the only Republican legislator in Virginia sponsoring such a bill, said he has been working on this issue for four years.
“I can’t do anything about immigration or the federal government,” Bloxom said. “But in Virginia, we could give these people the ability to drive legally and safely.”
Despite the large turnout in support of the legislation, Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Transportation Committee tabled both bills Friday morning on a 4-2 vote.
Two days earlier, the Senate Transportation Committee defeated SB 1740, which was introduced by Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and incorporated SB 1641, by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, also a Democrat from Fairfax.
Surovell said the bill was critical and would have increased state revenue and improved public safety.
Washington, D.C., and 12 states have laws allowing immigrants in the U.S. illegally to obtain driving privileges.
“Their number of hit-and-run cases fell off a cliff,” Surovell said. “Once people have ID, they stop and report themselves.”
There has been a 20 percent decrease in traffic fatalities nationwide since 1994. But states that expanded driving privileges prior to 2013 – New Mexico, Utah and Washington – saw traffic fatalities decrease by more than 30 percent, according to a report by The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which studies issues affecting low-income residents.
The institute attributed the change to more drivers having undergone the training and testing required to get a license.
Nearly a dozen people testified in favor of the bill, sharing personal stories and urging senators to approve the bill.
A representative from the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network said one member was unable to join the meeting because her younger brother – who has epilepsy – had a doctor’s appointment, and she is the only family member able to drive to him.
“When he first had a seizure, his parents were unable to be by his side, because they don’t have the legal ability to drive. No family should have to go through these obstacles to be near their children when they’re sick.”
No one spoke in opposition to the bill. However, the Federation for American Immigration Reform says that the legislation would reward lawbreakers. “The state of Virginia should not be facilitating people violating federal immigration law,” said Ira Mehlman, the group’s media director.
On the other hand, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, called the legislation “absolutely essential” and added, “I strongly support this bill.”
“Driving is an essential part of living in this country today – to go to the doctor’s, to go to work, take your children to school,” Edward said.
The Senate Transportation Committee defeated Surovell’s bill on a 6-7 vote. Edwards and five other Democrats voted in favor of the measure. The seven Republicans on the panel voted against the legislation.