President Obama’s move to let some undocumented immigrants stay in the country clears the way for them to become professional truck drivers, but that path is neither simple nor quick.

One element of Obama’s 10-part executive action gives the Department of Homeland Security discretion to defer deportation of parents of citizens or permanent residents who have been in the U.S. for five years.

This means that as many as five million people could get temporary permission to stay and be eligible to obtain Social Security cards – an essential first step toward a Commercial Driver’s License.

This potential expansion of the driver pool is more theoretical than assured, however.

For one thing, political opposition could lead to reversal of Obama’s action.

Republicans in Congress say the move is an unconstitutional abuse of executive power and may try to counter it legislatively next year. The White House position is that DHS has prosecutorial discretion to defer action on humanitarian grounds, among other reasons.

But even if the action stands, the path toward a CDL is not straightforward.

Applicants for deferred action will have to clear DHS background checks before they can get an Employment Authorization Document. With that document they will be able to legally stay and work in the U.S. for three years.

They will be eligible for a Social Security card with the notation, “Valid for work only with DHS authorization,” said Palma Yanni, an immigration attorney in Washington, D.C.

States have different rules on issuing licenses to holders of an Employment Authorization Document, Yanni said.

“Many states will only issue a license if the individual has an EAD valid for a full year at the time of application. Most states will issue a license valid only until the expiration of the EAD,” she said in response to an email query.

Trucking organizations concerned about a driver shortage in some sectors of the business view the executive action as a potentially positive.

The Truckload Carriers Association, whose members feel the driver shortage most acutely, believes that it’s too soon to know for sure but the action could slightly broaden the hiring spectrum, said president Brad Bentley.

“We will need to look at all areas to train and recruit professional truck drivers,” he said. “The main concern is making sure the process meets industry standards and requirements.”   

This reservation arises from the potential difficulty of vetting a person who has not been documented, he said.

“We can’t necessarily call the carrier or employer that they had before, because they might have been doing things under the table,” he said.

“I do think this has potential,” he said. “I think that from members I’ve surveyed, everybody was in agreement on that. Most said large carriers might benefit more than smaller members from resource standpoint.”

American Trucking Associations sounded a similarly cautious note.

“If the President’s program moves forward, and some of those covered by it are interested in safely moving America’s freight and, importantly, are capable of meeting the training, licensing and qualification standards, trucking fleets would welcome them with open arms,” said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy for ATA.

Osiecki added that Obama’s action is neither a complete nor permanent solution to the immigration problem.

“To that end, ATA will work with Congress to ensure that sound legislation can be considered and adopted.”

The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration bill that would give undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. The bill also would reform the visa system to accommodate more workers in the category that may include truck drivers. But the House, reflecting conservative Republican opposition to a comprehensive approach, has not acted on reform.

About the author
Oliver Patton

Oliver Patton

Former Washington Editor

Truck journalist 36 years, who joined Heavy Duty Trucking in 1998 and has retired. He was the trucking press’ leading authority on legislative and regulatory affairs.

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