Behind the wheel without a license: Migrants buying cars to make a life in Chicago

Behind a West Loop migrant shelter, dozens of cars sit without license plates.

Several of their owners stand nearby, acknowledging they lack licenses to drive them.

But they increasingly have been driving, according to a Tribune analysis of police data that suggests sharp rises in arrests among migrants for breaking traffic laws. The analysis found many are now being detained in Chicago each week for driving- or vehicle-related infractions, roughly at five times the rate from last summer.

“Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have,” said Jose Fernandez, 30 from Trujillo, Venezuela.

It’s difficult to know for sure how many migrants are charged or ticketed because police don’t keep precise data on when they arrest asylum-seekers. But what is often available in arrest data — the arrestees’ country of birth — suggests that driving- and vehicle-related offenses have become the primary reason migrants end up being detained by officers.

The Tribune focused on arrestees born in Venezuela because census figures show few native Venezuelans lived in Chicago before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing migrants north 18 months ago, and city officials say that Venezuelans make up the majority of the over 37,000 migrants who’ve arrived since.

The Tribune analysis found a stark rise in arrests since last summer, increasingly tied to driving or vehicle infractions. In February, for example, of all arrests of native Venezuelans, 6 in 10 listed the primary offense as driving- or vehicle-related. For other arrestees, the rate was closer to one in seven.

To be sure, the majority of these incidents are minor driving violations. The trend follows an emerging underground economy in which migrants say they desperately need vehicles to build their new lives, but in a place that makes it practically impossible for them to own or drive them legally. So many risk the threat of arrest.

Chicago police did not provide anyone for an interview on the subject. When asked if the department had any specific actions targeting unlicensed migrants, a spokesperson responded with a written statement saying officers “do not conduct enforcement action based on immigration or citizenship status.”

“The Chicago Police Department enforces all traffic laws and will take the appropriate enforcement action for anyone in violation of these laws,” the spokesperson said in the statement.

A bind for migrant workers

In interviews conducted in Spanish with the Tribune, migrants described a difficult bind.

Many staying in the 23 shelters around the city can’t work legally, despite efforts to expedite work permit authorization — a process advocates say is long, confusing, expensive and ultimately irrelevant to most migrants because they don’t qualify. Asylum-seekers are eligible for work permits depending on a variety of factors such as their home country, the circumstances they left and when they arrived.

Authorized or not, most migrants scrounge for construction, roofing, painting, kitchen work and housecleaning jobs. They say they often have to travel miles from a shelter to find someone willing to hire them without permits. Public transportation isn’t always affordable or accessible, and there are often delays.

Getting to work requires cars, they say, particularly if they have long hours or multiple jobs. They feel they have no choice but to drive, even if they’re breaking the law.

Pedro Mendoza, 30, from the northern state of Miranda, Venezuela, works at a ramen restaurant 40 minutes from the West Loop migrant shelter where he’s living. He said he’s a widower trying to earn enough to pay for the medical needs and other care for his two kids staying with a relative in Venezuela.

To make more money, he and a friend he met at the shelter went in on a two-door Honda Civic.

“Everything is expensive here,” he said as they looked at their car, which he said he bought from a friend in the neighborhood.

Mendoza now spends his nights taxiing people around, he said. Some weekdays, he drives to English classes at City Colleges of Chicago. He said he works long hours to succeed for his son and daughter in Venezuela.

But Mendoza, like most migrants in shelters, doesn’t have a license and doesn’t qualify for one.

The problem for recent migrants

Undocumented immigrants in Illinois have long confronted the challenge of driving without a license. In 2013, the sanctuary state became one of the first to issue valid licenses to those without legal residency status. Now, over a dozen states have similar programs.

Last summer, Illinois went a step further, phasing out what’s called the Temporary Visitor Driver’s License with the opportunity to obtain a “standardized” Illinois driver’s license. That law, supported by the secretary of state’s office, goes into effect this July.

Just like with the temporary visitor license, an applicant for a standard license must have lived in Illinois for more than a year and provide a valid passport or consular card. Under current state law, the program accepts passports from anywhere but only accepts consular identification cards from Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Ecuador and Brazil, according to Max Walczyk, spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state. Venezuela is not on the list.

Regardless, many migrants who are forced to flee their countries on short notice likely don’t have the time or ability to get a passport or consular card before leaving their home country, Walczyk said.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Barbara Hernandez, said the new law doesn’t shorten the yearlong waiting period because of the expectation that it will take time for immigrants to prepare for the driver’s test and learn Illinois’ traffic laws.

Most migrants staying in city-run shelters don’t qualify because they haven’t been in Chicago for more than a year, said Antonio Gutierrez, strategic coordinator of Organized Communities Against Deportations. Besides, Gutierrez said, migrants have other pressing priorities, and applying for a license is a bureaucratic hurdle they can ignore.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s at the top of the priority list for migrants,” he said. “Very few mention it to me unless they’re in trouble with the law.”

Because busing from Texas began 18 months ago, some migrants have been in Chicago long enough to qualify for licensing. But it’s unclear how many would or have applied.

Advocates say even migrants who qualify tend to be hesitant to apply because of language barriers and the costs of buying the insurance required to drive a vehicle for a driver’s test.

A city spokesman said the Chicago Department of Transportation has given presentations to migrants in shelters on navigating the city through public transit, bicycling and driving. That included information on how to get a driver’s license and basic driving rules.

Ultimately, many migrants who want to drive told the Tribune they’ve simply ignored the legal requirements.


It can be difficult to know precisely how often or how many migrants are driving. Many may avoid arrest and, even if detained, their demographics can be obscured in datasets that don’t record an arrestee’s citizenship status and — in about 1 in 7 cases — don’t record a birth country.

Still, using what data is available, the Tribune analysis found a notable jump since last summer of arrests of native Venezuelans for driving or vehicle violations.

Last June, for example, of all those Chicago police arrested primarily for driving or vehicle violations, native Venezuelans made up just 2% of the total. By February, it had grown to 28%.

Analysis of that period found the vast majority of that group had primary charges listed for perhaps the most obvious infraction: driving without a valid license. Most other infractions were tied to a vehicle not being properly registered or insured.

More serious driving-related charges were comparatively rare. The arrest data listed two cases of native Venezuelans accused of causing a crash while driving drunk between June and February.

During that same nine-month period 423 U.S.-born drivers were accused of causing crashes while driving drunk in Chicago.

An additional 20 native Venezuelan drivers were arrested for causing a crash while not properly licensed. In that same period, Chicago police arrested 200 U.S.-born drivers for causing crashes while not properly licensed.

Still, the more minor charges can carry weighty consequences for migrants.

Gutierrez, who provides case management services to asylum-seekers, said a migrant he works with — Jhoan Segura from Venezuela — was pulled over March 1 for not using his turn signal correctly. The police officer asked to see his license.

“And then all of a sudden he’s been apprehended and taken to the police station, because now it’s an escalated traffic violation,” Gutierrez said.

Segura’s traffic court date is April 15, but he won’t qualify for the temporary driver’s license program by then.

Gutierrez said Segura was working with lawyers to formally seek asylum, a form of protection that allows those who face persecution or harm in their country of origin to remain in the United States.

Not having a driver’s license alone — even if someone is stopped multiple times — likely wouldn’t stop a judge from granting asylum, said John Heiderscheidt, a Chicago immigration attorney. Judges typically frown on more serious misdemeanors and felonies.

It’s generally difficult, regardless, for migrants to be granted asylum — with a record of traffic violations not helping the cause.

According to advocates, steep fines are more of a concern for migrants who are pulled over for driving without a license than not being granted asylum. Vehicles can be towed, forcing owners to pay hefty fees that grow by the day and, if they don’t pay, lead the city to auction off the vehicle.

And then there are the separate criminal penalties for breaking the law.

In Illinois, the penalty for driving without a valid license is a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, though Heiderscheidt said he seldom sees fines that high.

Some counties are more lenient than others, he said, but prosecutors who see traffic infractions from migrants are mostly concerned with making sure the new arrivals get licensed.

“They tell migrants that if they can bring in a driver’s license within a reasonable amount of time, they can get supervision and pay a lower fine,” he said.

The asylum-seekers and refugees Heiderscheidt works with are often afraid of court systems in the United States because they face active persecution from governments in their home countries, he said. They sometimes agree to pay higher fines than they should to get out of court faster.

The solution is to allow migrants to apply for temporary driver’s licenses sooner, said Elizabeth Rompf Bruen, an immigration attorney with Delgado Rompf Bruen LLC and the immediate past chair of the Chicago Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“This would create a safer, more efficient system and avoid costly court fees for these new arrivals to our city, many of whom are struggling to survive,” said Rompf Bruen.

For now

On warm days, the roads and driveways around city-run shelters stay busy as migrants work on their vehicles: a red Chevy from the early 2000s, a Lexus, a Volvo, a Mitsubishi, a Pontiac from the late ’90s. The older cars are rusted over from the salt damage of Midwest winters and not being washed underneath.

Migrants tend to buy used cars from the early 2000s in fair condition because they are better deals. They tend to make their purchases from friends or online to keep their transactions under the table.

The vehicles are being turned into mini storage facilities — filled with clothes, coolers and stuffed animals. The atmosphere can border on a low-key tailgate gathering, with adults mingling outside as small children hang out in back seats.

Outside a shelter in West Town, Eloy Romero, 42, said he was a mechanic in Ecuador before violent gangs forced him and his wife to leave their home. He now spends his days changing the oil, tires and brake pads of cars that were purchased by other migrants at the shelter.

“We all help each other out,” he said, pausing in the middle of a brake job.

Jesus Alberto, from Maracaibo, Venezuela, said he bought a used Ford Fusion from an online posting. He parked it in a group of several dozen by the shelter. As he looked under his car, he said difficult situations forced difficult choices.

“I would like to get a license,” he asked, “but how can I?”

Chicago Tribune’s Sam Charles contributed.