Attorney: Driver’s license for undocumented immigrants key to safer roads in Kansas

By: - September 17, 2020 6:05 pm

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. A similar Kansas house bill died in committee this year. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — An Overland Park attorney is pushing for action that would allow undocumented immigrants in Kansas to obtain a state driver’s license, something she said is necessary for safer roads and safer immigrant populations.

To obtain a Kansas driver’s license, immigrants are required to prove they are citizens of the U.S. by providing a permanent resident card, valid employment authorization card, or unexpired passport from their home country with the proper entry marks.

“This would be a tremendous help to our communities that would keep our roads safer by allowing officers to identify everyone they pull over and issue a citation based on their discretion, rather than needing to detain someone for lack of identification,” said Catalina Velarde, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Velarde called for the change during an update Thursday from the Kansas Commission on Racial Equity and Justice to Gov. Laura Kelly. She recommended the amendment to current regulations be considered in the commission’s upcoming report to the governor.

In 2019, Rep. Ponka-We Victors, a Wichita Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, contingent upon passing a driving test and vision test. The bill died in committee in May 2020.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. These states require documentation, such as a foreign birth certificate or foreign passport and proof of residency.

Velarde said in many situations, the lack of identification turns a simple traffic stop into a much more serious issue if the immigrant is detained.

“Detention may lead to communication with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that will separate families,” Velarde said. “That might lead to something like a mixed-status household with U.S. citizen children all of a sudden not having their breadwinner just because of a broken taillight or failing to use a turn signal.”

Velarde said support for the change is significant in the immigrant community and among many law enforcement officers.

Kelly said this same issue has come up several times, including in a recent conversation she had with Latino media in Kansas. However, the change has faced significant pushback among state legislators, Kelly said.

She proposed a joint effort between the Kansas business and law enforcement communities in support of the license requirement change.

“If we could get a coalition of business and law enforcement together to push this issue with the Legislature, I think we stand a much better chance of success in getting it through,” Kelly said. “It’s clearly a huge issue and one we need to finally address.”

Ernestor De La Rosa, assistant city manager of Dodge City, echoed Kelly in saying the change was long overdue in Kansas, where the immigrant population continues to grow.

“It provides a sense of certainty to our families, especially of mixed-status, just for the simple fact that they could be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt and that could lead to deportation in a lot of cases,” said De La Rosa.

The commission also shared issues that will take priority in the December report to Kelly, such as public defender funding and resources and law enforcement training.

Commissioners in the coming months will determine topics of interest for further examination in 2021.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.