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Michigan Democrats: Give driver licenses to undocumented immigrants

Stephanie Chang at a press conference
Michigan Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, speaks at a media event Wednesday in Lansing. She and other Democrats say they are confident they can pass a law granting driver licenses to undocumented workers. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Democrats who control the Legislature say granting licenses to undocumented workers is a matter of “human dignity” 
  • Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar laws
  • Top Republican says those who enter U.S. illegally ‘should not be afforded the privileges of someone who follows the law’

LANSING — Undocumented immigrants could obtain a Michigan driver license or state identification card under Democratic legislation that sponsors hope to make law this year. 

Supporters say that giving more immigrants legal permission to drive to work, medical appointments or other functions without the threat of arrest or deportation is a matter of “human dignity” that would benefit the economy, including farmers who rely on seasonal labor.


“It is not the state government’s purview or job to fix our broken immigration system,” House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, said Wednesday in a media event announcing the effort.

“We're not going to wait for the federal government to act to make sure that all Michiganders are going to be safe.”


The Michigan League for Public Policy estimates the policy change could mean 55,000 new licenses for immigrants, while 19 other states and Washington D.C. have passed similar laws. 

But the measures could face significant opposition from legislative Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said in a Wednesday statement that “we can all support” making it easier for legal immigrants to obtain licenses or IDs. 

“Those that chose to enter this country illegally, however, have made the choice to break our laws and should not be able to obtain official state identification affirming they are who they say they are,” Nesbitt said. 

“We have reasonable requirements on how to enter our country, and if you are not willing to follow those, you should not be afforded the privileges of someone who follows the law.”

The Democrats’ proposal would reverse a 2008 Michigan law that limited driver licenses or identification cards to residents who establish they are “legally present” in the United States. Instead, applicants could use other documents to prove their residency, including a home utility bill or rental agreement. 

Democrats have introduced similar proposals, but the bills died in what was a Republican-controlled Legislature. Democrats now control both the House and Senate — with narrow two-seat majorities in each chamber — making it more likely the bills could advance. Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, sponsored similar legislation last term.

“My colleagues and I will do everything we can to make sure that we have the votes that are necessary to get these bills passed and signed into law,” Senate Civil Rights Committee Chair Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, told reporters. 

As a state senator in 2008, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer voted for the law that barred undocumented immigrants from obtained driver licenses or ID cards. 

But the Democratic governor appeared to back repeal of that law in 2019, when she told an immigrant rights group that “we need to ensure that everyone’s got a path to getting a license.”

Chang, who began working on the driver license legislation seven years ago, said she is optimistic the bills will win final approval this term. She touted a growing coalition of supporters that includes the Michigan Catholic Conference, along with various agricultural and immigrant rights organizations.

“It’s night and day in terms of the increasing awareness,” Chang told reporters. “So many more folks are realizing this is long overdue.”


Nelly Fuentes, an organizer and activist with We the People Michigan, identified herself as an undocumented immigrant whose husband was deported for driving without a license in 2008, forcing separation from their 4-year-old son. 

Without a license, it's even difficult to obtain over-the-counter flu medicine for her son at Walgreens, she said. 

"They refused to sell it to me because I couldn't provide a valid form of identification," Fuentas said, describing how she had to call a friend in the middle of the night, sobbing, to help get the medicine.

Rob Steffens, an apple farmer from Sparta, said the 2008 license ban on undocumented workers has hurt his industry, which relies on seasonal migrant labor.  

"There's not an apple, blueberry, asparagus, turkey, egg (farm) that this legislation wouldn't help," he said. "Our people want to follow the law, but they can't."

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