November 18, 2008

Special driver's license for noncitizens raises concerns

By Juan Castillo

To get to her job cleaning other people's houses, Maria depends on her car. Without it, the native of Monterrey, Nuevo León, says she would be hard-pressed to keep a job. Without the job, she would not be able to provide for her family or help pay her daughter's tuition at Austin Community College.

Maria has a Texas driver's license, which she got after coming here 16 years ago on a temporary visa. The visa expired long ago, meaning she is no longer in the country legally. Maria renewed her license anyway, because the Texas Department of Public Safety did not require that she prove her visa was still valid. (Maria — not her real name — and other unauthorized immigrants spoke to the American-Statesman on condition of anonymity.)

The DPS says it does not know how many noncitizens with expired visas renewed their licenses over the years, but it stopped the practice in May.

Now, under a regulation that took effect Oct. 1 in the name of national security, the state has tightened its license policy more by requiring foreign nationals to prove they are lawfully here before they can get an original, renewal or duplicate driver's license or ID card.

The DPS estimates that the rule could affect about 2 million Texas residents.

So what happens when Maria's license expires in 2013?

"I'll keep on driving with the license issued by God," she declared during a break from English classes she is taking at El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission in South Austin. "What are we supposed to do, stay at home with our arms crossed? We have to keep working and hustling if we want to get ahead."

About 20.5 million people have valid Texas driver's licenses or ID cards, according to the DPS; the new restrictions apply to about one in 10. Agency spokesman Tom Vinger emphasized that that does not mean all of their licenses are ineligible for renewal, only that the drivers will have to prove they are here legally.

For new applicants, the practical results of the policy will be less apparent. According to the National Immigration Law Center, Texas already had strict identity requirements that amounted to a de facto prohibition against illegal immigrants getting licenses. Those identity requirements are unchanged.

What is new is that noncitizens with legal permission to live in the country will now get special, vertical-shaped driver's licenses bearing temporary visitor designations. The licenses will be valid only until the person's legal status expires. Immigrants whose legal status is scheduled to expire less than six months from the time they apply cannot get a license or ID card at all.

The policy is drawing criticism from some state lawmakers as well as immigrant advocates who warn that it will drive illegal immigrants further underground and increase the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road. Critics also say that creating a different-looking license for noncitizens could lead to profiling and discrimination.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, called on the Texas Public Safety Commission, the DPS' governing body, which approved the rule, to rescind it until the Legislature meets in January.

"I think that DPS officials are creating immigration policy, which is not their responsibility. That is the sole responsibility and obligation of the Texas Legislature and not a state agency," McClendon said.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, joined a number of lawmakers promising to address the policy when the Legislature reconvenes.

Allan Polunsky, the chairman of the Public Safety Commission, said he respects legislators' concerns. But, he added, "in this particular case, I feel that the commission had the authority to pass the rule," which he said was motivated by concerns about national security, not illegal immigration.

Polunsky came under criticism last week after asking Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for a ruling on the legality of setting up statewide driver's license checkpoints. In a letter, 15 lawmakers asked Abbott to ignore that request because the Legislature has not authorized a checkpoint program.

Insurance and security

In closing the loophole that allowed Maria to renew her driver's license, Texas joins a number of states that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, have moved to restrict illegal immigrants' access to licenses, usually citing national security as the reason. Only five states — New Mexico, Washington, Utah, Maryland and Hawaii — do not require applicants to show evidence of lawful presence in the country.

Supporters of such requirements have long argued that issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is an incentive for more illegal immigration.

"The fact is that they're already here," said Jaime Chahin, a professor of social work at Texas State University and a member of the board of directors of El Buen Samaritano, which serves working-poor Hispanic families. An estimated 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants live in Texas, and about 800,000 of them have jobs, according to a study by Waco-based economist Ray Perryman.

No one knows exactly how many illegal immigrants in Texas drive without a valid license or drive without liability insurance — which all drivers are required by law to have — but it's presumed that the vast majority do not carry insurance.

Of the hundreds of auto insurers in Texas, "there may be a small number of companies that would sell insurance to a driver who does not have a valid driver's license, but I am not familiar with any of those companies," said Jerry Johns, president of Southwestern Insurance Information Services, an insurance trade association representing companies in Texas and Oklahoma.

Johns said the association has strong concerns about the estimated 20 percent of Texas drivers who do not carry liability insurance — about 25 percent in Austin — but that it has not taken a position on whether undocumented immigrants should be able to get licenses.

Another undocumented immigrant, Javier, said he has auto insurance from a Texas carrier, though he does not have a Texas driver's license — only one from his home country of Mexico. A Mexican license is valid for up to a year after a person arrives in Texas, said Vinger, the DPS spokesman.

Javier, a 40-year-old who juggles three jobs, says buying insurance "makes sense to protect our investments in our vehicles, which we need to get to work."


Immigrant advocates say public safety would be better served if undocumented immigrants were allowed to get licenses because they would then be held responsible for their driving record and for getting insurance like everyone else.

"They've got to feed their families, and they're going to go and drive. That's all there is to it," said the Rev. Ed Gomez, pastor of El Buen Samaritano.

But survey results show that most Americans are apparently unswayed by the safety argument. Voters opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses by an almost 4-1 ratio in a 2007 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

"They shouldn't be here in the first place, so we shouldn't be giving them ID documents," said Brent Munhofen of Austin, a spokesman for the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, which opposes benefits for illegal immigrants.

Vinger said foreign nationals who can't prove they are in the country legally are not reported to immigration authorities but simply denied a license.

An exception would be if the DPS discovered that an applicant had presented fraudulent immigration documents.

The special driver's licenses themselves have drawn criticism. Maria Luisa Bautista, who heads the Austin-based nonprofit group Inmigrantes Latinos en Acción, said she fears they will make legal immigrants "marked people," potentially vulnerable to discrimination.

The licenses could lead to more scrutiny by law enforcement officers conducting routine traffic stops or landlords reviewing rental applications, said Luis Figueroa, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.; 445-3635

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