Indiana’s GOP lawmakers split on bill to offer ‘driving privilege’ cards to immigrants

Immigrants would be allowed to drive under bill passing first hurdle

By: - February 8, 2023 7:00 am

Indiana lawmakers barely passed a bill out of committee Tuesday that will create driving cards for immigrants. ((Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Indiana’s Republican lawmakers appear divided over a bill that would expand driving privileges to immigrants without documentation.

The bipartisan measure narrowly advanced 5-4 from the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday and now heads to the Appropriations Committee for a fiscal impact evaluation. 

Bill author Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, said the “driving privilege” cards can only be used for driving and not as an ID for anything else, including employment or voting. Driving privilege cards also couldn’t be used for commercial driver’s licenses.

Anyone seeking a driving privileges card would still need to carry auto insurance. 

Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen. (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

Among other requirements, individuals must also show proof that they paid taxes in Indiana for at least one year. Doriot said Tuesday that ensures “we know they are already a contributing member to our economy and society.”

“What we have are a group of individuals that are here, participating in our economy, in our society. They are employed. They’re holding up — in my district — the RV industry,” Doriot continued. “This is going to put safer drivers on the road because they are going to be going through the same thing that our children or any other adult has to go through to get their driver’s license.”

But other GOP lawmakers are not on board. They say immigrants to the United States should “follow the rules” to establish legal residency before earning the “privilege” to drive.

“How are we, as a society, supposed to set aside the rules and do the right thing?” said Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo. “As sympathetic as many of us might be, that’s a hard hill to crawl over.”

How driving cards would work

Currently, Indiana law does not allow immigrants who lack permanent legal status to drive. That means immigrants who live in Indiana often lack the means to legally complete daily tasks and are unable to show identification when asked by law enforcement.

The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) reports that recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are only issued a license if they meet requirements to obtain a REAL ID: a full legal name, date of birth, social security number, two proofs of address or principal residence, and paperwork showing lawful immigration status.

In order to get a driving privilege card, a person would be required to have paid taxes in Indiana in the last year, submit fingerprints for a criminal background check, and have insurance, according to the bill. 

They must also renew their driving privilege card every year. Doriot said the provision ensures that Indiana doesn’t become “a destination” for the cards.

Sixteen other states have similar programs already.

Bill co-author Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, said the bill is a “common sense thing to do.” 

He noted that the driving privilege card will also come with an additional $50 fee, in order to help with the cost. 

The BMV expects the cost to issue a redesigned license type as required under the bill to cost about $1.3 million, according to legislative fiscal analysis.

But Niezgodski said the bill is also likely to increase state revenues.

Up to 500 annual requests for the new credentials are expected in the first four years of implementation, and up to 1,100 total requests could be made in the first four years after the cards are made available. Most of the demand is anticipated to come from the state’s immigrant population, including DACA recipients who don’t have the necessary documents for a REAL ID.

Taking that data into account, Indiana legislation is expected to increase state revenue from driving card credential fees by approximately $132,500 in the first four years of administration.

Broad support from across Indiana

More than a dozen groups testified in support of the bill on Tuesday.

Michael Niland with the Insurance Institute of Indiana said the proposal would lead to fewer uninsured motorists in the state, which in turn would decrease the current cost shift to Hoosiers who are already paying for auto insurance.

“The hope with this bill is that you could see a decrease in the amount of premiums you’d have to pay towards the uninsured motorist portion of your insurance policies, so you can get back to just paying your traditional insurance that covers your person,” Niland said.


Kellie Walsh of the Indiana Motor Truck Association doubled down that the bill would improve roadway safety by decreasing the number of untrained, unlicensed drivers. 

Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman submitted a letter of support signed by 49 mayors — 25 Republican mayors, 21 Democrats and three independents.

Goshen Chief of Police Jose Miller said his community is home to many immigrants “who are good people just trying to live the American dream — trying to get to work, trying to take their kids to school and go to the grocery store.”

“Truly, these people just want to have the right to function in our society — and we’ve let them in our society,” Miller continued.

He said driving privilege cards will reduce hit-and-run accidents and make it easier for police to identify people who get pulled over or are involved in collisions.

The bill is also supported by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Catholic Conference, Indiana State Poultry Association, Indiana Muslim Advocacy Network, among others.

Not all GOP lawmakers on board

Still, Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, questioned if a person needs to be able to speak English in order to get the driving privilege card.

Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

Both Doriot and Niezgodski pointed out that English language proficiency is not a current requirement to get a driver’s license.

Tomes later noted he’s “not against” the bill, but said immigrants like his daughter-in-law — who went through the citizenship process — would likely feel “frustrated” if lawmakers help immigrants without documentation.

“When I hear what we’re doing here, you have to understand my side of this. I’m willing to help people. I know what we’re trying to do,” Tomes said. “But I also understand that people like my daughter-in-law — who work very, very hard to be a citizen of this country … you can understand how it must feel … when we say ‘Well, sorry about your luck, but these are the things we’re going to do for those who come here illegally and want to stay here illegally.’”

Buck called the proposal “one of the best bills” he’s seen come through the senate committee. But he ultimately voted against it.

“The fundamental question still remains from those that have obeyed the rules and done the right thing — to try to placate their frustration when I’m down here voting to complicate their frustration … I’m just struggling,” he said. “You’ve got two sides here, very emotionally involved, and I keep hearing this same phrase, to ‘follow the rules and do the right thing.’ It’s hard to square.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.