Undocumented immigrants can’t get driver’s licenses in Minnesota, but that could change this year if a bill passes in the state Legislature.
The bill, known as Driver’s Licenses For All, would open that opportunity for an estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants living in Minnesota. Ninety-four percent of those immigrants are over the legal driving age of 16, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
The bill passed in the Minnesota House on January 30. The state Senate is now discussing the bill in committee sessions. Advocates in immigrant communities have organized for the last few decades to change a state rule that prohibits undocumented Minnesotans from receiving licenses. Many believe the DFL-controlled state Legislature and governor’s office are working in their favor this year.
Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
Navigating the state’s Driver and Vehicle Services offices can be confusing. Sahan Journal spoke to state officials, advocates, and a former Driver and Vehicle Services worker about the process of obtaining a driver’s license and what could change if Driver’s Licenses For All becomes law.
Here’s what to know about getting a driver’s license in Minnesota as an immigrant:
What is Driver’s Licenses For All?
Driver’s Licenses For All proposes ending a requirement that applicants show proof of legal residence in the United States—such as a social security number—when applying for a Minnesota driver’s license or state identification card.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety, which oversees driver and vehicle services, changed driver’s license eligibility rules in 2003 under then-Governor Tim Pawlenty to include this requirement. Advocates in immigrant communities have organized for decades to change the rule.
The bill passed 69-60 in the Minnesota House after a five-hour session on January 30. Representative Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, and Freshman Representative María Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul, carried the legislation.
Senators Zaynab Mohamed, Bobby Joe Champion, Scott Dibble, Alice Mann, and Nick Frentz sponsored a Senate version of the bill. Senate members have discussed the bill in a few committee meetings, but have not yet brought it to the floor for a vote.
Governor Tim Walz has said he will sign the bill into law if it passes in the Senate.
“Our caucus is united on the bill,” Mohamed said. “We hope that it will have bipartisan support and we will continue to work on the other side of the aisle.”
How would undocumented Minnesotans obtain a driver’s license if Drivers Licenses for All passes?
Jody-Kay Peterson, the state Driver and Vehicle Services director of driver services said the state would have to update its list of the types of documents applicants must show to prove their identity when applying for a license, because the list of currently accepted documents only apply to legal residents and U.S. citizens.
“We’re going to have to do some community trainings, and going out to speciality groups to let them know about the process and all the documents,” she said.
Driver and Vehicle Services staff will also receive training about processing the new eligibility documents, Peterson said.
According to Mohamed, applicants will have to prove their identity and that they are a Minnesota resident through, for example, an energy bill or rent receipt.
Mohamed noted that applicants must live in Minnesota for at least 60 days in order to apply for a license.
“You have to prove you’re a Minnesota resident, so you can’t come from Wisconsin and say, ‘I’m going to get a Minnesota driver’s license,’” she said. “You would be attesting under perjury, by the way, and undocumented folks don’t want to get in trouble with the law.”
Lawmakers and advocates stressed that if the bill passes, undocumented people will receive the same driver’s license as citizens and lawful permanent residents.
In an effort to discourage discrimination, the current bill does not require the state to mark licenses for undocumented drivers differently from standard licenses. Republicans in the Minnesota House pushed for amendments to the bill that proposed changing the licenses’ appearance for undocumented drivers, but all of their amendments were struck down.
Undocumented applicants will not have to show a social security number or other proof of lawful residency in the United States.
Can an undocumented person renew their license if they legally obtained it prior to the rules changing in 2003?
“Unfortunately, no,” Peterson said. “We use a system where we verify social security online, and if they were issued a credential before we started using that […] you can’t pass that verification and you will not be able to renew that credential.”
Anderson added that Driver and Vehicle Services implemented a new operating system in 2018 that automatically prevents people from renewing their driver’s license without a social security number.
How will policymakers work out the details if Driver’s Licenses For All passes?
If the bill passes before the 2023 legislative session ends on May 22, the law will be implemented by this October.
“The bill that we’re carrying currently is a bill that was written by the community a number of years ago,” Mohamed said. “Obviously it’s changed over the years, but it’s a really strong bill and it has strong data protections for folks who are undocumented.”
Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of advocacy group Unidos Minnesota, advises undocumented immigrants who want to apply for a license to gather their documents, such as consular identification cards, birth certificates, and foreign unexpired passports, as soon as possible. She said skeptics of the bill should not be concerned about the validity of such documents.
“Those are federal identity documents that have high security from governments, so people should not worry that they’re fake,” Gonzalez Avalos said.
The state’s current rules for obtaining a driver’s license accept those same documents from immigrants with lawful residency.
Gonzalez Avalos recommends that would-be drivers start studying for the written exam given to all applicants that tests their knowledge of state traffic laws, among other topics. She added that if Driver’s Licenses For All passes, applicants should be ready to make appointments as soon as they can.
Gonzalez Avalos said advocates will continue to maintain a relationship with Driver and Vehicle Services to ensure the agency implements procedures that are accessible and equitable.
“There is already cultural competency gaps as things are now that they need to solve, especially in greater Minnesota,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “This new pool of applicants will only reaffirm the urgency to solve the cultural competence, especially in rural counties.
“There should be a strong policy of no tolerance for racism at the windows. In terms of the training, people need to understand that this country doesn’t have an official language and that if they’re eligible, it’s based on the documents that they’re submitting, not on the language they’re speaking. And localities need to build capacity to serve that population equitably, which they have to be doing anyway already.”
If Driver’s Licenses For All passes and I obtain a license, what might happen if I’m pulled over by the police?
Tony Anderson, Driver and Vehicle Services director of operations, and Peterson said that the state’s license system does not share immigration data with police when police check a driver’s license during a traffic stop.
“What law enforcement is making sure is, ‘Is that credential real?’” Peterson said of why police check driver’s licenses. “The data it’s showing is not linking to if [drivers are] here lawfully.”
Mohamed, one of the state senators pushing the bill, said lawmakers ensured that the bill protects personal data so federal immigration authorities can’t access a license holder’s immigration status unless they have a warrant to do so.
Gonzalez Avalos emphasized the strong data protections in the bill and efforts to make sure licenses for undocumented immigrants won’t look different from current licenses.
“Most of the actions that can harm immigrants will be based on interpersonal assumptions and discrimination, which are already prohibited in systems, supposedly. It goes against the Equal Opportunity Act, it goes against non-discrimination policies,” Gonzalez Avalos said.
“If people assume that because you have an accent or because you look non-white that you might be undocumented, and if they act upon that assumption and call ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on their discretion, I wouldn’t even want to imagine the types of lawsuits they would be facing,” Gonzalez Avalos added. “And they will lose.”
Myriam Parada, a 26-year-old Mexican immigrant, was pulled over by Anoka County police in 2017 for driving without a license. She was held for immigration enforcement after officers in the county jail found out she wasn’t born in the United States. After a five-year legal battle, a federal court ruled in late 2022 that the county discriminated against Parada. The county has since removed this practice.
Do you have a story similar to Myriam Parada?
Email [email protected] to tell us more about your experience driving in Minnesota as an immigrant.
Gonzalez Avalos noted that the bill has a lot of support from law enforcement. Officers who go “above and beyond” their discretion to report a driver born outside of the United States do so for their own political ideologies, she said.
“Driver’s licenses won’t solve all the problems, they will solve some,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “But people won’t be safe until we build an immigration system that allows families to stay together.”
She said Unidos Minnesota will work with its network to intervene if immigrants with valid licenses are discriminated against.
Can the state accommodate an increase in driver’s license applications if Driver’s Licenses For All passes?
Anderson, director of operations for Driver and Vehicle Services, said the agency requested 12 additional staff members in the bill. Currently, he said Driver and Vehicle Services has been able to keep up with demand.
“But we’re asking for additional staff for that increase,” Anderson said.
Peterson added that on top of the 12 new staffers requested in the bill, the agency also asked state lawmakers to fund additional staffers who will conduct driving tests, process and review documents, and facilitate community training sessions. The request is part of the fiscal notes of the Driver’s Licenses For All bill.
Will licenses issued under Driver’s Licenses For All qualify as REAL ID?
A REAL ID is an identification required by the federal government to board a domestic flight or enter some federal facilities. The requirement prompted Minnesota to offer enhanced driver’s licenses starting in 2018 that also serve as a REAL ID, since older licenses did not meet the requirement. The state also created REAL ID identification cards separate from driver’s licenses.
Minnesotans who don’t have the enhanced driver’s licenses will not be allowed to board domestic flights beginning May 7, 2025.
Standard driver’s licenses issued to undocumented Minnesotans, should the legislation pass, will not serve as REAL ID, which requires proof of U.S. citizenship.
How do I apply to get a license and what documents must I show if I currently qualify under state law to obtain one?
Applicants will need to present specific documents and pass two tests to receive a license.
- Make an appointment at one of many Driver and Vehicle Services exam offices across the state to complete a written test. The test includes multiple choice and true-false questions to test your understanding of Minnesota traffic laws and road signs. Some stations offer a computerized test that is available in English, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somali, Spanish, and Russian.
- You will also need to show a primary and secondary document that proves your identity. A list of acceptable documents is posted below. One example of a primary document that is accepted is an unexpired U.S. passport. An unexpired passport from a country other than the U.S. is accepted only when it is accompanied by an unexpired I-94 form. A social security card is an example of a secondary document. If you are an immigrant, you will need to show proof of lawful admission to the United States, such as form I-20, DS-2019, I-797 or other official immigration documents.
- If you pass the written test, you will receive a six-month learner’s permit if you’re under 18 years old.
- Drivers can then apply for a provisional license. Fill out a pre-application and then schedule an appointment with Driver and Vehicle Services to complete the application in-person and take the road test. You can also call (651) 284-1000 to make an appointment.
- For the road test, you will get behind the wheel with an examiner to test your driving and handling of a car. If Drivers Licenses for All passes, undocumented applicants will also be required to complete a road test.
- Applicants who pass the road test will pay an application fee, get their vision screened, and have their picture taken at a Driver and Vehicle Services screening before walking out of the office with valid credentials to drive. That is typically a paper version of a temporary license; your official driver’s license will arrive later in the mail.
How is this process different for someone who isn’t a U.S. citizen but who is in the country legally, such as a green card holder or a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals?
There are documents applicants can show to prove lawful residence in the United States. A common example is an unexpired passport from another country with an I-94 form, according to Driver and Vehicle Services Director of Operations Tony Anderson.
Jody-Kay Peterson, Driver and Vehicle Services director of driver services, noted that some immigrants who have pending applications to receive immigration status can apply for a license.
“Immigration is behind,” Peterson said, “so we can see that someone has a pending application.”
Another route towards obtaining a driver’s license, called the “variance process,” is commonly used for people living in the United States under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The deferred action designation allows some people who immigrated to the country as undocumented children to stay in the United States for two-year intervals, which can be renewed. Licenses for such immigrants are valid for the time period the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the immigrant is legally allowed to stay in the country.
Peterson said driver’s licenses obtained through the variance process look identical to licenses obtained through the standard route, and are not marked in any way to look differently.
“It’s just another avenue for us to help folks who are waiting for their support documents,” she said.
“The challenge on anything that has a temporary immigration remedy is going to be the timestamp,” said Gonzalez Avalos of Unidos Minnesota. “And that has become a problem specifically with [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] delays, because if folks are not able to submit renewal documentation, their license expires that day period.”
What are some tips for immigrants who are legal residents?
Cristy Morelos is a former Driver and Vehicle Services employee who worked at the agency’s offices in Eagan and St. Paul.
“Usually St. Paul is a pretty good location, because people from a lot of different backgrounds are working there,” Morelos said. “It usually helps when there are people like me who are Spanish speakers or whatever language they need to walk them through the process.”
She also recommends connecting with advocacy organizations like Unidos Minnesota for help navigating the process, or friends and family who have licenses.
Search for a Driver and Vehicle Services office location here. Some locations offer the knowledge test, but not the road test.
“Counties that take diversity seriously will have multilingual people to support people from all over the world that are their neighbors,” said Gonzalez Avalos. “There are ones that are resistant to that based on their own county politics, but Hennepin is not, Ramsey is not. People understand that they have to become culturally aware and available to people.”
She added that Driver and Vehicle Services offices in greater Minnesota are doing a better job serving multilingual people in areas like Rochester, Mankato, and Rice County.
Morelos recommends visiting a St. Paul Driver and Vehicle Services office, but noted that it can get busy, so applicants should make an appointment in advance or prepare for long lines.
What resources are available for people who speak other languages?
In addition to English, Driver and Vehicle Services offers the written driver’s test in Somali, Hmong, Karen, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and American Sign Language.
“We’re looking to add more,” said Peterson, a director for Driver and Vehicle Services.
For the state’s growing Afghan refugee population, the agency is working on translating the knowledge test into Dari and Pashto. The agency is working with advocates to organize an interpreter who can work with a group of up to four Afghan refugees at a time who are taking the written test.
Applicants can arrange for an interpreter to attend their written test. An examiner will read the test’s questions to the interpreter, who then translates the test for the applicant. The interpreter must have a valid Minnesota driver’s license. It’s the applicant’s responsibility to find an interpreter.
An interpreter is not allowed in the vehicle during the road test; only the applicant and a Driver and Vehicle Services examiner are allowed.
Peterson added that Driver and Vehicle Services has driver’s manuals translated into Somali, Spanish, and Hmong.