Photo by Michael Mancuso for NJ.com
New Jersey will join 15 other states and the District of Columbia in offering licenses to noncitizens, regardless of legal status. The group includes New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and California.
The effort, however, has run into some of the same snags that bedeviled the early rollout of coronavirus vaccines, according to immigration advocates: confusion over where and how to get appointments, and concerns that the online process will make it more difficult for less computer-savvy applicants.
Diana Mejia, a founder of Morristown's Wind of the Spirit, which works with local immigrants, said volunteers have found state Motor Vehicle Commission offices not always ready to help.
"They get responses that included that they didn't know anything and that it wasn't a law," Mejia said. "The attitude of the employees at the (MVC) will be crucial in reassuring people who are going through the process of getting a license."
Driving schools in cities with ethnic enclaves said they are fielding calls from immigrants looking for information on how to get the licenses.
“Even before this, we always had people inquiring if we could give them driver’s licenses without a learner's permit or with just their licenses from their country of origin, so I’m pretty sure business will increase,’’ said Johana Guzman, owner of Enterprise Driving School in Passaic, who plans to hire more instructors. “We are going to have more work once May comes.”
The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2019 after a long debate, allows for a standard driver’s license to be issued to immigrants regardless of legal status. It would also make licenses available to senior citizens, domestic violence survivors, former prisoners and homeless people who may lack documentation.
The state Motor Vehicle Commission will begin processing applications at the start of May, after delaying plans for a Jan. 1 rollout due to the pandemic.
The law will extend driving privileges to about 400,000 of New Jersey’s estimated 475,000 undocumented immigrants, the commission anticipates.
The law has the potential to improve public safety and generate new revenue for the state economy, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
In a 2019 study, the group projected that the expansion of driver’s licenses will generate $21 million in revenue from permit, title and driver’s license fees during the first three years of implementation. New Jersey can expect an additional $90 million from registration fees, gas taxes and sales taxes on motor vehicles and auto parts, they predicted. The study did not estimate the costs of implementation.
Those who oppose the law have said it prioritizes immigrants without legal status above everyone else.
Among the critics is Greg Schraer, owner of the Paramus Driving School, who said he doesn’t think people who can’t speak English should be given licenses because road signs are in English.
“We need to have a system that gives people the right to become citizens and the right to be here legally, but I don’t think we should be making any allowances for people who are here illegally’’ he said. “I don’t even teach people who only speak Spanish, because I feel very strongly that you need to know the language to drive.”
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