TRENTON — A few hundred people rallied Thursday outside the Statehouse in support of making undocumented immigrants eligible for New Jersey driver’s licenses, hoping to move the issue from the back-burner to the forefront of lawmakers’ minds as they return to Trenton after summer recess.

Around 500,000 people could get licenses if the change is approved, said Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. She said that would increase the amount of revenue the state collects from new license-holders and improve road safety.

“There is no action, and that’s really frustrating. And at the end of the day, we are getting to the point where we really need to see some movement,” Calle said.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports the idea. Legislation has been introduced but hasn’t had a hearing. At a Thursday event in New Brunswick, Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said the top issues on their fall agenda are a $15 minimum wage and marijuana legalization; they didn’t mention driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Still, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey executive director Amol Sinha is optimistic it will happen at some point.

“Everybody who’s eligible to drive should have a driver’s license because it just makes sense for our state. People shouldn’t have to worry about getting pulled over and being separated from their families when they’re dropping their kids off to school or when they’re going to work," Sinha said.

“Otherwise we’re going to be in a state where we’re creating classes – people that are able to drive and people that aren’t,” he said. “And that’s not due to the merits of the person’s skill but due to discrimination.”

Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, expects that about half of the newly eligible drivers would get licenses within three years. They’d have to take written and behind-the-wheel tests to show they’re safe drivers, then get insurance coverage, reducing the costs for others of covering crashes that involve uninsured drivers.

“So the overall effect of that is a great improvement in safer driving, more people who are covered by insurance. The whole thing is a benefit to the entire state,” MacInnes said.

Reina Axalco, of Lakewood, came to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and said a driver’s license would make her life better – particularly given the lack of public transportation alternatives in Ocean County.

“I need it. It’s not because I just want to drive. It’s because I need it. I need it for my kids, for school, for work, for doctors, for many, many things,” Axalco said.

Jasmine Eung-McHale, of the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing, said most tasks of basic living in New Jersey require a car.

“And I think that it’s important that we allow undocumented residents, our neighbors here, to be able to have that freedom,” Eung-McHale said. “It’s often one way they get flagged by law enforcement when in fact they’re just trying to live their lives.”

Calle said she hasn’t gotten a clear indication from legislators about why the bill hasn’t advanced but believes it is in part because the state Motor Vehicle Commission is focused almost entirely on getting Real ID federal security enhancements in place.

She said the rally was held Thursday because lawmakers are about to begin their fall session.

“So that legislators understand we are not letting up on this issue. We are not going away,” Calle said.

“Before we heard the excuse of, ‘Well, Gov. (Chris) Christie is not going to sign. Gov. Christie is not going to support it.’ Well, we’re at the point where Gov. Murphy has said he wants to sign it. Legislators have said they support it. So I see no reason why this shouldn’t happen right away.”

Twelve states currently allow driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

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