Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching & Service
Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching & Service

Integrating the Undocumented Community: A Qualitative Exploration of the Process for Obtaining DC’s Limited Purpose Driver’s License

Click here to read the full report!

In January of 2015, Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and community partners, Central American Resource Center and Trabajadores Unidos de Washington, DC, were awarded a grant by the Sociological Initiatives Foundation to research the experiences of undocumented immigrants as they apply for Washington DC’s new Limited Purpose driver’s license, a license for undocumented immigrants.

Passage of the District’s Driver’s Safety Amendment Act of 2013 made it possible for the DC Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to implement the Limited Purpose driver’s license. It allows District residents who meet age, identity, district residency requirements and can prove social security ineligibility to obtain a license in order to drive legally. Ten states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have extended driving privileges to undocumented immigrants.

Dr. Diana Guelespe, CSJ’s Director of Research and Evaluation, led a research team comprised of undergraduate student research assistants and staff members of partnering community-based organizations to explore the experiences immigrants have as they go through the process of obtaining the license. Their research surfaced immigrants’ many challenges thus they were able to recommend ways in which community organizations, residents, and city officials can  increase the LPDL  accessibility.

Researchers conducted seventy-five semi-structured interviews with undocumented immigrants who were eligible for the license. The findings suggested that although important steps have been made to increase undocumented immigrants’ access to the license, major challenges persist. Undocumented immigrants undergo a different process from individuals obtaining a regular license; this process results in an extended waiting period before obtaining it. The research also determined that both a lack of interpreters and the use of phone-interpretation discourages and impedes undocumented immigrants from completing the process. Other factors, such as immigrants’ limited technology skills, lack of knowledge of Washington, DC driving rules and unfamiliarity with the multiple-choice test format were also identified as barriers to passing the required tests and completing the process. Among immigrants interviewed who had obtained the license, all had received assistance during a stage in the process, such as in the form of a community-based organization reviewing application documents prior to their DMV appointment or having a hard copy of the DMV driver manual for studying purposes.

The research makes recommendations for all community stakeholders to consider and implement as they see fit within their roles and responsibilities as a resident, service provider, governmental agencies and offices. The implementation of these recommendations will increase license accessibility and ensure a more fair and efficient process for the estimated  25,000 undocumented immigrants who reside in Washington, DC. It will also provide early lessons in license implementation efforts as more states adopt similar measures and address immigrant integration at the national level.


DC mejorará acceso a licencias de conducir para indocumentados
By: Milagros Meléndez-Vela, El Tiempo Latino, June 3, 2016

Critics Take DMV To Task For ‘Separate But Not Equal’ Driver’s License Process For Undocumented Immigrants
By: Armando Trull, NPR WAMU 88.5 – May 6, 2016

Facilitan solicitud de licencias en el DMV
By: Jossmar Castillo, Washington Hispanic – May 6, 2016

Councilmembers Aim For A Legislative Fix To Issues At DMV
By: Rachel Sadon, DCist – May 5, 2016 

D.C. tried to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. Activists say it failed.
By: Luz Lazo, The Washington Post – April 26, 2016

Advocates Say DMV Takes Far Too Long To Serve Undocumented Immigrants
By: Rachel Sadon, DCist – April 26, 2016

For Undocumented Immigrants Seeking D.C. Licenses, Process Can Take Months
By: Armando Trull, NPR WAMU 88.5 – November 4, 2015

Examinan Licencias de Conducir para Personas Indocumentadas
Univision – November 4, 2015

Reaching Out: Georgetown Students Redefine Engagement with the Immigrant Community
The Georgetown Voice By Lara Fishbane and Cassidy Jensen – September 25, 2015