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Gov. Whitmer appears to support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

close up of Gretchen Whitmer
Photo courtesy of www.senate.mi.gov/whitmer
State Senator Gretchen Whitmer

Last updated Aug 2, 3:14 pm: Governor Gretchen Whitmer appears to support changing state law to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Her position seems to come as a bit of a surprise, even to immigration advocates.

Whitmer was backstage at the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate Wednesday night in Detroit, when she was approached by a volunteer organizer.

“Hi governor, my name is Nikki, I’m from the Movimiento Cosecha,which is a movement led by immigrants for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States,” the organizer says, according to a video of the encounter provided by Cosecha. “Right now in Michigan, undocumented immigrants cannot get licenses. And I wanted to know, would you be willing to support access to the undocumented immigrants to get licenses here in Michigan?"

Legislators passed a law in 2008 making it illegal for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Several other states provide licenses to residents regardless of immigration status.

“We need to ensure that everyone’s got a path to getting a license, so they’ve got identification,” Whitmer says. “That’s something that’s important to me, it’s important to our economy, and it’s important to the people of Michigan. And fortunately we’ve got a secretary of state and an attorney general who also, I know, feel the same way.”

“That’s so great! Thank you!” the Cosecha volunteer said, before hugging Whitmer.

Asked to confirm that this is, in fact, Whitmer’s position, a spokesperson for the governor appeared to be unaware of the interaction or Whitmer’s comments. Michigan Radio sent Whitmer’s office a copy of the video, and spokeswoman Tiffany Brown sent the following response: 

"Not really sure if this is one of the first times [the Governor has stated her position on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants] or not... I can tell you that the governor believes Michigan’s diversity is one of our greatest strengths, and she is committed to making Michigan a more welcoming and inclusive state where people come to for opportunity. Other than that, not much more to add to what she said in the video."

Asked for comment, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office sent a statement Friday afternoon:

"Secretary Benson has met with community leaders and legislators and stands with the governor in support of changing the law so that all individuals working and residing in our state may obtain a state ID or a driver’s license for use in Michigan."

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Since 2008, there have been unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation allowing residents to get licenses, even without proof of legal residency. But while Republicans maintain majorities in Lansing, it’s highly unlikely such bills would make it through the Legislature to Governor Whitmer’s desk.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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