Driver’s licenses for the undocumented: a brief history

It was a post-9/11 reform. How soon we forget.

The current prohibition on issuing Minnesota driver’s licenses to undocumented migrants dates from 2003.

A number of media outlets note that the provisions being repealed were put in place under the last Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty. Advocates for repealing the measures emphasize how “recent” the 2003 rule change was, without providing any background on why the rule was changed. It did not occur in a vacuum. The Minneapolis Star Tribune explained in 2019 the origins of the rule:

An estimated 95,000 immigrants are living in Minnesota illegally, according to the Pew Research Center. Minnesota used to allow such residents to get driver’s licenses, but former Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended the practice in 2003 in an effort to prevent terrorism.

The 95,000 figure dates from 2016.

The current driver’s license rule was part of the implementation of enhanced ID in Minnesota. That rule was codified into law (Minn. Stat. 171.015 Subd. 7) by a 2017 bill implementing REAL ID, signed by then-Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat. For the record, Dayton supported repeal of the rule against undocumented licenses.

It’s that Dayton-era legislation that the current bill before the legislature (HF 4) would repeal.

REAL ID came about as a reaction to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The attacks were undertaken by 19 persons, 15 of whom were citizens of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Two were from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt and one from Lebanon.

At least six of the terrorists are known to have violated immigration laws, most by overstaying the time limits on their temporary visas.

In testimony before the U.S. Congress on REAL ID, it was revealed that the 19 hijackers managed to accumulate a total of 17 driver’s licenses, issued by Arizona, California, and Florida. In addition, they obtained 13 state-issued ID cards, 7 of which were issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Center for Immigration Studies comes up with the same count (30 ID’s), and documents issuance from Maryland in addition to the other states.

Perhaps the story of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker,” has now been forgotten. A French national, he was arrested in Minnesota, the month prior to 9/11, for violating Federal immigration law. He continues to be imprisoned in the Federal Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, states made an effort to tighten up rules around issuing driver’s licenses and ID’s. Minnesota limited licenses to citizens and those noncitizens who could prove legal residency.

Even that isn’t enough security. This article documents how a person, later suspected of terrorism, obtained a Minnesota bus driver’s license in 2001 using a fraudulent green card. He was later deported on immigration fraud charges.

Rich Stanek, then Pawlenty’s Public Safety Commissioner, (earlier, he served as a Republican member of the state legislature and later a three-term Sheriff of Hennepin County) recounts the mood in 2003 in this article for the William Mitchell Law Review. The headline reads “Terrorism: Minnesota Responds to the Clear and Present Danger.”

Most of the article addresses the issue of driver’s licenses for noncitizens. In particular, Stanek goes over the difficulty in tying the expiration of the license to the expiration of temporary visas, an issue that arose in the 9/11 hijackings.

REAL ID was first passed by Congress in 2005, but its full implementation has been postponed several times. It is currently scheduled to take effect May 7, 2025.

In the meantime, any license or ID issued by the state of Minnesota can be used to board a commercial airliner. Of course, many other forms of ID also satisfy for that purpose.

HF 4 continues to make its way through the committee process.