Last week police chiefs in Massachusetts voiced their support for legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The chiefs reasoned that many illegal immigrants drive despite being unable to get a license, making the roads more dangerous and the jobs of police officers more difficult. Opponents claim that giving illegal immigrants the ability to drive only sanctions their violation of immigration laws.

The question is difficult, and it may find its way into federal comprehensive immigration reform in the near future. During the campaign, President Obama voiced his support for making driver’s licenses available to illegal immigrants. In early April, the White House announced that the President would make immigration reform a priority starting in May or June, but no specifics were addressed.

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Currently only five states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses: Utah, New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, and Maryland.

In Illinois, a social security number is required to apply for a driver’s license, which makes it impossible for illegal immigrants to get one. But it also makes it difficult for some legal aliens to drive. Non-resident aliens—that is, people with H-1B status or other temporary work authorization—are allowed to apply for a social security card, but their spouse or children, who are in the country legally, are not. Therefore, they are also disqualified from obtaining a driver’s license.

For many immigrants, the alternative is driving without a license—and without insurance—because not driving at all is simply not an option. According to the Massachusetts police chiefs, this increases the number of hit-and-run accidents and generally makes the roads less safe. Despite these concerns, the national trend seems to be moving away from allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

On May 11, 2008, the REAL ID Act went into effect, which requires all states to adhere to certain minimum requirements to ensure the security of state-issued licenses and identification cards. One of the stipulations is that states require a social security number for anyone who wishes to get a driver’s license. Recognizing that states needed time to implement REAL ID, the federal government issued extensions until December 2009, with probable further extensions until May 2011. At that time, however, all state-issued identification cards will require a social security number.

Some lawmakers and activists have suggested an alternative license for illegal immigrants which would somehow indicate that the holder was undocumented. However, it seems unlikely that immigrants would be willing to obtain a document that would immediately reveal their undocumented status.

While President Obama’s support for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants might help secure its inclusion in a comprehensive immigration reform bill, REAL ID combined with widespread public disapproval may make it more difficult. The road to immigration reform is certain to be long and difficult and controversial issues such as driver’s licenses will likely add to the conflict.