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Opinion | Restore Michigan licenses, IDs for undocumented immigrants

Michigan recently earned the title of the country’s “anti-Florida” after passing sweeping legislation since winning a Democratic trifecta for the first time in 40 years during the 2022 elections. In just a few months, the state approved gun control laws, repealed archaic abortion laws and expanded LGBTQ protections.

Diego Navarrete
Diego Navarrete is on the immigrant justice team at We the People Michigan, a DACA recipient and a graduate of Harvard College.

Michigan stands in direct contrast to Republican-controlled states like Florida that have made it a priority to pass regressive and discriminatory laws, including: allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, a six-week abortion ban and allowing for healthcare discrimination on the basis of religion that will likely target members of the LGBTQ community.

However, there is one area that Michigan has yet to take as bold of a stance on: immigration. 

Earlier this month, Florida governor Ron DeSantis approved one of the most anti-immigrant bills in the country that targets and further criminalizes undocumented immigrants in the state. The bill, SB1718, makes it a felony to drive into the state with someone who is undocumented, requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask for citizenship status and invalidates out-of-state driver’s licenses held by undocumented immigrants. 

While Michigan Democrats have acted swiftly in reversing decades of discriminatory laws pushed under Republican control, there is a law that remains to be overturned that would restore access to driver’s licenses and state identification for undocumented immigrants.

Michigan has the potential to serve as a national antidote to the hatred and xenophobia coming out of Republican states like Florida. In order to earn the title of the “anti-Florida,” Michigan must prioritize progressive, pro-immigrant policies like restoring access to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. 

Prior to 2008, Michigan was one of the few states in the country that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license or state identification. The right was taken away by Republican Attorney General Mike Cox after he issued a legal opinion that would require proof of legal presence in order to obtain any state identification. In a matter of months, the opinion was quickly codified by a change in law under Michigan's Republican state government. 

Five months into the new term, Michigan’s immigrant communities are still waiting for Michigan to become the 21st state in the country to approve driver’s licenses and have this right returned to them. 

A current package of legislation, called the Drive SAFE bills (HB 4410-12, SB0265-67), would revert to the pre-2008 policy and restore access to driver’s licenses and state identification to all Michigan residents, regardless of citizenship status. The Drive SAFE bills have been introduced in both chambers of the legislature and are currently sitting in their respective committees awaiting a hearing. 

Due to Florida’s regressive policies that deny undocumented immigrants access to basic services like a driver’s license, that state is beginning to see the devastating consequences. Worksites across industries have gone empty, and some immigrants are fleeing to states with more pro-immigrant policies. By failing to provide undocumented immigrants with so little as a state identification or access to a driver’s license, Michigan risks a similar fate. The economic impact, let alone the impact on Michigan’s diverse and culturally-rich communities, would be catastrophic. 

The Florida law does more than discriminate against undocumented immigrants: it sets the standard for Republican states and voters on how to treat immigrant communities. Michigan has proven that Democrats can win — and win big — in swing states when they run on progressive causes, and the immigrant community is asking legislators to not be left behind.

In refusing to take a stand to protect immigrants, Michigan normalizes xenophobia and allows hatred to win. Failure to approve legislation like the Drive SAFE bills and secure Michigan as a place where immigrants are welcomed further advances the far-right direction in which the country is headed. 

Michigan legislators have the power to take a stand against hatred and set the country on a path that respects the dignity of all people, regardless of where they come from. 

Without pro-immigrant policies, Michigan will continue to look like Florida in avoidable and unsettling ways.

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