The State of Iowa will now issue driver’s licenses to migrants from three Pacific island nations that are valid for the same duration as those provided to U.S. citizens.
The modification, which increases the validity of licenses from two years to eight, is expected to increase migrants’ access to not only transportation, but also employment and housing security by reducing the likelihood their driver’s licenses will lapse. Many employers and landlords require that licenses remain current.
“Some of our community members lost their jobs because of license renewal,” said Irene Maun Sigrah, a community health worker at Crescent Community Health Center in Dubuque. “It’s not just their jobs, but their insurance.”
Citizens from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau stand to benefit.
Under a Compact of Free Association, they may live and work in the country indefinitely without a visa or green card, but their status made them eligible in Iowa for only a temporary driver’s license or personal ID card with a maximum duration of one year.
U.S. citizens who are Iowa residents may obtain driver’s licenses that are valid for up to eight years.
A recent amendment to the federal Real ID Act of 2005, permitted the Iowa Department of Transportation to issue licenses for a longer duration, but doing so required an update to the state’s records-keeping system. The process took about two months and was completed in late January.
Since then, COFA migrants have started to receive eight-year licenses.
Iowa joins multiple states with the country’s largest COFA communities that also have enacted similar policies. Those states include Arkansas, California, Oregon and Washington.
“This driver’s license cuts through all that confusion for these people who might have recently arrived from the islands and provides more access to the local services,” said Tina Shaw, executive officer of the Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs in the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
Dubuque County leads the state with more than 400 Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders residing there in 2017, according to the most recent U.S. Census data available. That is about 11% of the group’s total population in Iowa.
In Jackson County to the south, the city of Maquoketa is home for many Micronesian residents.
The new policy is expected to reduce potential language barriers they face at driver’s license offices when attempting to acquire or renew a license.
While the written portion of the license test is available in more than 26 languages and dialects, Marshallese is not included.
But the DOT will accommodate the language needs of any applicant, said Mindi Nguyen, the department’s community outreach coordinator.
“We allow the customer to bring someone who can interpret for them, if their preference, or we work with our contracted language provider and arrange for a phone interpreter to be present during the oral knowledge exam,” she said.