Driving Privileges for Undocumented Virginians: What You Need to Know

In 2020, Virginia passed a law allowing undocumented Virginians to receive driver privilege cards. Because this new law went into effect on January 1, 2021, it is important to understand what these cards mean and how to obtain one.

Why are Driver Privilege Cards Important?

In many parts of Virginia, it is very difficult to go to work, attend school, go to doctor’s appointments, or run basic errands without the use of a car. Despite how essential driving privileges are, prior to January 2021, undocumented Virginians were unable to obtain a driver’s license or other card showing that they are legally allowed to drive. Because of this, many undocumented Virginians had to drive without a license. 

In Virginia, driving without a license or a driver privilege card can have criminal consequences that can impact someone’s immigration status in the United States. Regardless of the underlying reason for a police encounter on the road, such as a traffic stop for a simple infraction, or an accident where the driver in question bears no fault at all, driving without a valid permit of some kind can result in a class 2 misdemeanor charge. Such criminal charge carries a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for even a first offense. A second or subsequent offense of driving without a license becomes a class 1 misdemeanor, carrying even greater maximum fines, and up to one year in jail

Even if these specific charges are not crimes that would make someone removable from the United States, the simple fact of interacting with police could put someone at risk for removal.  

How Can Someone Apply for a Driver Privilege Card?

For more information about driver privilege cards and how to apply, visit the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles website. A Spanish translation of the documents needed to apply for a driver privilege card is available on the website for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations

What Should Someone Consider Before Applying?

With the new change in law, many people have been very excited to register with the DMV to obtain their driver privilege cards. While there are many benefits to the driver privilege cards, it is important that each person consider their individual circumstances before applying. 

One risk of applying for a driver privilege card is that, as of this writing, this law does not have specific, robust privacy protections. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been known to use DMV records in other states to find individuals who are priorities for removal from the United States. This means that immigrants who already have an order of removal issued by an immigration judge may be at greater risk of being found by ICE if they apply for a driver privilege cards. It is possible that a noncitizen may not know that they have an order of removal. If you or a community member you know is unsure about their immigration status or if they have an order of removal, consult with a licensed attorney who practices immigration law. 

Additionally, immigrants who have had interactions with the criminal justice system—arrests or convictions—may be more easily found by ICE if they apply for a driver privilege card. If you or a community member you know is a noncitizen with any history of arrests or convictions, it is important to consult a licensed attorney who practices immigration law to understand any risks. 

Immigrants at the lowest risk are immigrants who are already have a case in immigration court but have not yet been ordered removed by an immigration judge. More information about checking the status of a case with the immigration court can be found here

This piece was cowritten by J. Nicole Alanko, Esq., Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow at William & Mary Law School’s Immigration Clinic and Nicholas Medved, Esq., J.D. ’17, Assistant Public Defender, Newport News. The views expressed in this piece are his own and not the views of his employer.

This blog post does not constitute legal advice. Anyone who is concerned about their immigration status or the immigration consequences of any traffic tickets or convictions should consult with an attorney.