EDITORIAL: Certify safety

Driver’s licenses should be for driving, not citizenship

New Jersey lawmakers might soon start using driver’s licenses for their stated purpose. Texas legislators should do the same thing.

The New Jersey State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee on Monday passed a bill that would enable foreign nationals, including those without legal U.S. residency, to obtain driving credentials. The Senate Transportation Committee should vote on the matter Thursday, and send it on for a vote by the full legislature, most likely next week.

It’s expected to pass and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy supports the bill, which will make the state the 13th to focus the license on driving rather than identification.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, say removing legal status requirements rewards lawbreakers. Proponents say many undocumented residents already drive anyway, and allowing them to apply for drivers’ licenses would help ensure that they have proven proficiency and knowledge of the state’s driving laws. Driver’s licenses also make it easier to obtain insurance and register their vehicles, improving overall safety and offering more assurances of financial responsibility in the event of an accident.

The same factors apply in border states like Texas, and especially areas like the Rio Grande Valley, where thousands of Mexican residents come every day to work, shop, conduct business and vacation. Many of them drive across and surely more would rent vehicles if they had acceptable licenses.

It’s an issue of public safety, and that’s the stated purpose of having driver’s licenses in the first place. While they are popular methods of proving one’s identity, that isn’t their primary purpose.

Texas driver’s licenses have long been used as a means to prove legal residency. State officials will use them as one way state residents can comply with the REAL ID identification requirements that Congress enacted in 2005 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Under the REAL ID Act, travelers must show proof of legal U.S. residency in order to cross our international boundaries or board aircraft in this country.

The requirements go into effect Oct. 1, 2020.

Since 2016, Texas driver’s licenses and identification cards that show compliance with REAL ID requirements carry a gold dot imprinted with a white star. That star enables the holder to cross international bridges or fly within the United States without other proof of immigration status. Passports will still be required for international flights and at seaports.

The star also makes it easier to issue cards to non-citizens; a card without a star will show that a person is licensed to drive, regardless of legal status.

Obviously, the card also will make it easier for the holder to open bank accounts and conduct other business that can help the local economy, so they could prove popular.

Regardless of other benefits and functions, however, the primary purpose of a driver’s license is to ensure safety on our roadways. With that in mind, state lawmakers should consider dropping the immigration status aspect of the licenses, and encourage foreign drivers to prove their proficiency by obtaining them.