This post is by OK Policy intern Jacob Tharp. Jacob is a recent University of Oklahoma graduate in Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Oklahoma’s approximately 95,000 undocumented immigrants are a force in Oklahoma’s economy, accounting for about 1 in 30 members of the workforce and contributing roughly $85 million in state and local taxes annually. But despite their positive economic contributions, undocumented residents face arrest and/or deportation for doing something that many Oklahomans do every day: driving.

Although immigration is mainly a federal policy issue, many states recognize that undocumented immigrants will continue to live, work, go to school, and drive here, and that there are benefits to ensuring that undocumented immigrants who are contributing positively can obey state laws. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s license or equivalent. This growing list of states includes progressive strongholds such as California, but also conservative states like Utah. Oklahoma should join these states and extend legal driving privileges to our undocumented neighbors. Such a policy would not only improve overall public safety, but could also help lower Oklahoma’s staggering uninsured motorist rate and generate revenue for a state that desperately needs it.

Not having a driver’s license causes many problems

Prohibiting undocumented immigrants who live and work in Oklahoma from obtaining driver’s licenses not only prevents them from driving legally, but it also makes it more difficult for them to do many other things that require a driver’s license as identification, including registering their vehicles, purchasing auto insurance, and opening bank accounts. Further, it prohibits law enforcement from entering undocumented residents into the database used to track the driving records of licensed drivers. 

The fact is, undocumented residents will continue to drive on Oklahoma roads whether or not the state chooses to authorize them to do so legally. Prohibiting undocumented residents from obtaining driver’s licenses does little to prevent them from driving and likely has negative effects on overall public safety.

Whatever happens in national debates over immigration policy, our state and local leaders have a responsibility to look out for the safety of the people that are here now. That’s why as President Trump prepared to take office with his promises of an immigration crackdown, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and then-Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett both emphasized the importance of immigrants to their cities and promised that their police departments would not act as immigration enforcement agencies. “I don’t want anyone to be a crime victim in [Tulsa] and be afraid to call the police,” said Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan. Allowing immigrants to legally drive is another way to directly improve public safety on the state and local level.

It’s not all or nothing

Several states have implemented several versions of policies that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Utah, for example, offers a two-tiered license system allowing undocumented residents to obtain “Driving Privilege Cards” (DPC) that afford undocumented residents the right to drive legally but are not acceptable forms of ID for state or federal purposes. 

This could offer a good example for Oklahoma, because as it turns out, Oklahoma is already in the process of implementing a two-tiered license system for its citizen residents. You may have heard that your current driver’s license will soon no longer be able to be used to board an airplane or enter a federal building. That is because of the federal Real ID Act, which sets in place minimal standards for federally acceptable forms of ID. Oklahoma will soon begin issuing Real ID compliant driver’s licenses, but it will also continue to issue non-compliant licenses because some residents expressed concern about being forced to obtain a license that would require them to be entered into a national, federally monitored database.

The alternative state licenses will already include a statement saying that they are not acceptable forms of ID for federal purposes. If lawmakers wanted to further distinguish the alternative licenses issued to undocumented residents from those issued to citizens, it would be fairly simple to do so.

Getting undocumented drivers into the state’s system would help address many public safety issues

Under the two-tier model, undocumented residents would have to verify their identity, prove that they live in Oklahoma, and pass a written and physical driving exam – the same process that Oklahoma citizens must complete in order to obtain a driver’s license. This process would ensure that undocumented immigrant drivers know the rules of the road and would also generate state revenue through various fees. It would also allow law enforcement to enter undocumented residents into the statewide database used to track the driving habits of all other drivers, making it easier to issue citations to undocumented residents when they violate traffic laws. A large study found that providing undocumented immigrants reduced the likelihood of hit and run accidents in California.

Offering driver’s licenses to undocumented residents would also enable them to purchase auto insurance, helping to lower Oklahoma’s uninsured motorist rate, which as of 2015 was the highest in the nation at 26 percent. After passing Driving Privilege Cards in 1999, Utah’s uninsured rate dropped from 10 percent in 1998 to 5.1 percent in 2006. A further audit in 2007 showed that 76 percent of Driving Privilege Card holders had insurance, compared to 81 percent of all drivers in Utah. As proof of liability insurance is required to register a vehicle in Oklahoma, expanding access to auto insurance could spur the growth of additional state revenue and ensure that vehicles are registered to their correct owners.

Safeguards must be put in place

Even if a form of driver’s license is made available to undocumented Oklahomans, many people who are eligible will rightfully be wary of making their status known in a state database. Any program must put in place clear and enforceable assurances that holders are not discriminated against, targeted for enforcement, or otherwise treated differently than those who hold traditional driver’s licenses. Oklahoma could do this by making immigrants’ Driving Privilege Cards indistinguishable from those held by people who opt out of Real ID, so that possession of the license is not evidence of immigration status.

When the Driving Privilege Card policy was proposed in Utah, critics on the Right claimed that it would attract more undocumented immigrants to the state, while critics on the Left worried that it would spur racial profiling by police. Nearly 20 years after the passage of the policy, neither of these fears were realized. Opposition to the Driving Privilege Card program in Utah has all but disappeared.

The authority of states to deal with undocumented immigration is limited, but providing undocumented immigrants a way to drive legally is a firmly established and reasonable policy to promote the safety of all citizens. Such a policy could go a long way towards lowering Oklahoma’s high uninsured motorist rate and generating needed state revenue – and it’s common sense for Oklahoma’s public safety.