Many immigrants in the U.S. illegally can now legally register a vehicle in Minnesota, even as a measure to grant them driver’s licenses failed to pass the Legislature this year.

A law signed by Gov. Tim Walz makes a consular ID an acceptable form of identification for vehicle title and registration transactions, following months of confusion among undocumented residents and auto dealers. Before the change, some had not realized they could not register their vehicles until after they bought them; auto dealers also struggled with the expense of buying back returned cars.

“That put a lot of dealerships and their customers in limbo,” said Amber Backhaus, vice president of public affairs for the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association.

It is not necessary to have a driver’s license to own a vehicle in Minnesota, though car owners are required to have insurance. Some seniors and residents with disabilities, for instance, have a vehicle in their name but have someone else drive them around.

Consular IDs, issued by consulate offices of foreign governments, are already accepted for home purchases, so the new measure “really provides some parity,” said Backhaus.

The new law doesn’t exclusively cover immigrants here illegally, and can include foreigners who are here legally but lack a driver’s license.

Some immigrants and auto dealers said there was no problem registering cars with a consular ID before the new law, but Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon said that should not have happened.

Gordon said in a statement that it had not been acceptable before the new law to accept a consular ID. He said the agency has consistently informed deputy registrars of the proper identity documents. Those include a driver’s license, passport or Social Security card.

If a deputy registrar accepted a consular ID as an identity document, he said, the agency’s division of Driver and Vehicle Services should have caught it and sent the customer a “deficiency letter” indicating that he or she must supply a legally compliant identity document before the transaction could be completed.

Sometimes, he added, a long period passed between the time the customer was at a deputy registrar and when they would receive a deficiency letter.

“However, there were situations where deputy registrars accepted the consular ID and DVS did not ‘catch’ it in their review and the transaction was completed,” Gordon said. “This did happen, but it should not have happened.

Now people can use a consular ID issued by their home country to register a truck, motorcycle, car, recreation vehicle, manufactured home or park trailer. The measure was included in the omnibus transportation bill.

The idea originated in a separate bill sponsored by one Republican and three DFLers. Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, one of the sponsors, said it was primarily meant to help people who are in the country legally but have trouble getting their consular IDs recognized when buying a car.

The Automobile Dealers’ Association, which advocated for the vehicle registration law, has not taken a position on a measure that would grant driver’s licenses to immigrants living in Minnesota illegally. It passed the DFL-controlled House but was not considered by the GOP-led Senate. Advocates for the driver’s license bill argued that it would make the roads safer, while opponents voiced concern that it would unfairly help those who have violated immigration laws.

Registering cars for family

The state has an estimated 95,000 immigrants without documentation, including in rural areas without access to public transportation.

“In a way [the new law] still allows them to own a car and have some sort of mobility,” said Felipe Illescas, legislative director at the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs.

Illescas said he’s had to register cars for family members.

“It’s hard to find someone that is willing to take that responsibility because if people get a parking ticket it goes to the owner … if there’s an accident it could potentially damage that person’s driving record and impact their insurance premiums,” Illescas said.

Several dozen members of the Latino community attended an informational meeting on the change at Waite House in south Minneapolis this month. Driver and Vehicle Services Director Dawn Olson told the crowd that the agency has alerted everyone about the acceptance of consular cards and that the policy is taking place for applications retroactively dating to last October.

“If you’re having problems when you go in, I would tell them the law changed,” she said.

Sitting in the audience was Lauro, a Mexican native and father of three, who asked that only his first name be used to avoid jeopardizing his status in the United States. He has no interest in buying a car — Lauro is fearful of getting deported and relies on friends and co-workers for rides. But he wants to purchase and register a mobile home in his name under the law.

“This is really good — it’s a help to the community,” said Lauro.