Drivers License For All Sign at House Vote

Minnesota ‘Driver’s Licenses For All’ Bill a National Model For Data Privacy Protections, Advocates Say

An attorney who worked with Minnesota Democrats to craft the new ‘Driver’s Licenses For All’ bill, recently signed into law, spoke to Unicorn Riot about the bill’s privacy provisions that reportedly prevent driver data from being shared with the feds. 

Photo of Veena Iyer courtesy of Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

On March 2, the Democrat-controlled Minnesota state legislature passed the “Driver’s Licenses For All” bill, restoring driving privileges to all Minnesota residents regardless of immigration status. Democratic Governor Tim Walz signed the bill into law on March 7.

This legislation comes after a 20-year struggle. In 2003, GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty unilaterally revoked the right of some Minnesotans to obtain a driver’s license by mandating proof of legal residency in the United States, such as a Social Security Number from applicants. This has adversely impacted communities and businesses across the state, activists say, as it causes undocumented migrant workers to risk arrest and deportation for driving without a license. 

A diverse coalition of Minnesotans, including migrant workers, immigrant rights groups, faith leaders and business owners lobbied lawmakers for nearly two decades trying to restore driving privileges for those affected by the 2003 law. They worked closely with Democratic officials to craft the new law, and after Democrats won a majority in both chambers last November, they didn’t waste time passing the bill when the new session began. 

On January 30, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the ‘Driver’s Licenses for All’ bill by a vote of 69-60, straight down party lines. On Feb 22, the Senate passed the bill at 2 a.m. with a 34-31 vote, also straight down party lines. State DFL Senators Zaynab Mohamed, Bobby Joe Champion, Scott Dibble, Alice Mann, and Nick Frentz carried the bill in the Senate.

There are two other drivers licenses in Minnesota that do require proof of citizenship or eligible immigration status: the enhanced driver’s license and the Real ID driver’s license. 

Access to driver’s licenses is important for public safety and economic growth, advocates argue. The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM), one of the groups that made up the coalition, said that this bill will not only impact immigrants, but it will benefit the very communities these workers support. 

“Every day, Minnesota residents who are undocumented go to work, care for family members, attend school, advocate for positive changes, and connect with other residents of Minnesota. We need them and all that they contribute to our Minnesota community. They need driver’s licenses.”

Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota 

The ILCM Executive Director Veena Iyer spoke on Twin Cities Public Television about the significance of this new bill. Iyer said that places where public transportation is most lacking will see some of the greatest benefits from this bill.

“When you look at business communities that will benefit, it’s really in greater Minnesota. There you have a shortage of folks to work and a lack of public transportation,” she said. “And so taking away that fear of driving and allowing people to get licenses is going to solve so many issues for greater Minnesota.”

ILCM Executive Director Veena Iyer

Iyer told Unicorn Riot that the Twin Cities will also see great benefits from this new law. In addition to immigrants, the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and other groups who may have difficulty obtaining hard-to-access documentation, as well as the nonprofit agencies that provide services for these populations, will benefit from this new law. 

However, similar bills in other states that granted driving privileges to undocumented immigrants have actually hurt the very people it was intended to aid, according to a recent study.

“…ICE has been able to persistently search driver’s license information, even in states that have allowed and encouraged immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.”

Georgetown University Law Center 

Washington state has allowed residents, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, to obtain driver’s licenses since 1993. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee even promised to protect immigrants in his state from ICE after Trump was elected president in 2016. However, the Seattle Times discovered that ICE was getting information from the Washington Department of Licensing without court authorization and using it to arrest and deport immigrants that hadn’t committed any crimes but did not have visas, or had expired visas. 

In 2022, the Georgetown University Law Center published a two year long study called “American Dragnet” detailing the various ways ICE collects sweeping data on the majority of the American population. 

The report found that ICE has data on three out of four American adults and operates outside of immigration services acting as the FBI’s primary partner in its counterterrorism joint task force. ICE regularly circumvents state privacy laws by purchasing utility records of most adults in the U.S., including driver data, heating and gas bills, property records, phone, internet and social media data, to surveil everyday people. 

ICE claims they primarily focus on people who pose threats to national security, border security and public safety in general. However, the study shows ICE also uses the data to target immigrants for civil immigration enforcement purposes. 

The study found that ICE was tracking undocumented immigrants for deportation via state and national driver’s license databases. 

According to Georgetown Law, ICE’s three primary sources for collecting data are through: 

  • direct requests to Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) employees for records and face recognition database searches; 
  • direct access to search electronic databases of registered drivers and vehicles, including directly performing face recognition searches; 
  • and through private third party data brokers who sell driver’s license data to private companies that resell access to law enforcement agencies, including ICE.

Georgetown Law also found out that ICE ran face recognition searches on the entire state DMV database in Rhode Island in 2008. 

The report mentioned an important national database that ICE has direct access to which contains several states’ driver’s license records called the International Public Safety and Justice Network, or more commonly known as Nlets. Nlets is a service, described as a “superhighway of information sharing,” used by law enforcement agencies across the nation. The database comprises 35 states with a population of up to 146 million drivers, including 2,146,519 from Minnesota.

The Minnesota bill recently signed into law includes data protections against much of the abuses outlined in the surveillance study. With this new bill, law enforcement in Minnesota cannot access immigration data during traffic stops, according to its authors.  

ILCM director Iyer told Unicorn Riot that this new bill includes three important provisions that protect drivers with class D licenses in Minnesota from civil immigration enforcement purposes and agencies like ICE: 

  • Immigration/citizenship status is held confidential: the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) is not allowed to share citizenship or immigration status of applicants for Class D driver’s licenses. There is one exception: DPS can share this data with the Minnesota Secretary of State to improve voter registration records. 
  • DPS, or private third party driver and vehicle services (such as AAA), cannot share any data from applicants with law enforcement or ICE without a warrant.
  • Third party data brokers such as LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Inc., or Thomson Reuters that purchase data from the state of Minnesota must provide certification that they will not share data with ICE or any other immigration enforcement authorities.

When asked how this new bill will affect Minnesota’s participation in the Nlets, the national drivers license database, Iyer said she was unsure.

Despite that, she believes Minnesota’s new law is now a national model. “I see it as having one of the strictest privacy protections in the country,” Iyer told Unicorn Riot. 

She said privacy protection laws in New York and Virginia were used to craft this legislation. 

Minnesota is the 21st state/territory, including Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, that allows residents to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status. 

Iyer was unsure who will audit this process and enforce this law to ensure DPS and private third party contractors are abiding by the new changes. Unicorn Riot reached out to several sponsors of the bill, including Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, Rep. Aisha Gomez and Rep. Maria Isa Perez-Vega, but did not hear back. 

Most state laws protecting driver data have been ineffective against ICE, according to Georgetown Law. It quoted a California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez who said her state has been unsuccessful at protecting the driver data of immigrants each time they’ve passed legislation. “Every time we create a law in California, ICE figures out a way to get around [it].”

The new Minnesota law goes into effect on October 1, 2023. Only time will tell if these new privacy provisions passed in the bill will do what they’re supposed to do and protect residents from civil immigration enforcement.

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