Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Texas: Separate Driver's License for Non-Citizens

Special driver's license for noncitizens raises concerns

By Juan Castillo
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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.

jcastillo@statesman.com; 445-3635


Anonymous said...

Just another great idea by this wonderful government. The last few laws and changes just added more racism. They give the Americans the idea they can attack, kill, and do whatever else they want to an immigrants. It stinks find something else to attack. I am so sick of it and I am American but not proud of it.

abdul said...

I always understood that insurance was protection against something that might or might not happen (e.g. fire, theft), and assurance was protection against something that was bound to happen sooner or later (e.g. death).
landlord contents insurance

Anonymous said...

Why do people keep bringing up the 2001 attacks when referring to illegal immigration. When the people who attacked the country were legal citizens.? Both the 9/11 attacks as well as the attack on Oklahoma City in 1995, two of the worst terrorist attacks on this country, were maid by legal citizens.... So anyone who reads this please begin to think about what politicians and other mindless people say before you believe them!

Anonymous said...

About time!!! Go home and come back legally!! Do it right the first time.. That way we can charge you taxes for all the educational, medical, and welfare benefits... The free ride needs to end! Don't see Mexico allowing anyone south of their border in illegally!!

Anonymous said...

what do you mean go back home and come back legally?? what would you do, if you could not feed your family because there is no work,or if there is, they only pay like five dollars a week. Stop the hate, and ask what would the US do with out these people that are more than willing to defend this country. They are not the ones not wanting to pay taxes, its the goverment that is not letting them....duahhh...I hope you take a good look at yourself and realize how hatefull you sound and that hopefully you are never put in a situation like most immigrants today. Oh and you do not need anything to go to mexico but your ID and register your automobile when you cross the border.

Anonymous said...

I am an illegal undocumented 23 year old female, who has illegaly resided in Texas for 17 years. Do the math. I was brought here, illegally, at age 6. I attended 1st-12th grade. And proceeded to getting an associates degree in community college. With that being said Keep this in mind--> I grew up in a family of 8. 2 of which born US citizens. who recieved Medicaid for 1 year after they were born to cover their medical expenses because quite frankly my parents did not, at the time, have the means to pay for it themselves. We never recieved food stamps, nor us non citizen kids receive medicaid because I don't know if you know this- you do not qualify for medicaid if you are not legal. So stop saying illegals abuse medicaid, bottom line illegals don't CANT get medicaid. they also can't get, unemployment or grants, or financial aid, or goverment assistance living (HUD homes) or anything else that is considered a government issued fund. and NEVER ever have I heard one undocumented alien state that they want to get these. Bottom line is- don't send people home and tell them to come back legally, unless u know what that entitles. Keep in mind, to get a job. this requires 1 form of ID and social security number. These are presented fake to employers by illegals not because they are on a quest to get away with murder but because they want to be able to have a job. A job, which takes FICA, social security, and taxes off of their pay like any other legal or illegal employee. With the difference, that the social security and FICA are never seen by these undocumented workers. They go directly to government assistnance programs, which as I stated before ILLEGALS DO NOT BENEFIT FROM! Also, IRS issues a tax payer ID number so that you can file your taxes at the end of the year. Remember this next time an illegal alien comes to mind- My fathers has resided in this country, Texas specifically, for the past 23 years. 17 years of those has been paying in range of 3K to date 12K a year on property taxes, and although he has worked ILLEGALLY for 23 years and has had Social Security withdrawn from every check he will never see a penny of it. and if your answer to this is- Well then why doesn't he just work legally?? The answer is, "because ignorant minds like yourselfs never think outside the box and stop to think about how this is affecting others, until a law is passed allowing undocumented workers to pay a fine for being here illegally and prove that they have paid taxes and have had a crimminal free records, there is not one lawyer that can get them a social security number or a resident status in this country. Bottomline- its impossible! You cannot go back and come back legally or else they wouldn't come illegally in the first place!" Seriously- have an open mind. I congratulate you for living, legally, in a country that allows you to boast your opinion. No matter how ignorant that opinion may be.

Anonymous said...

First off, illegal immigrants DO NOT qualify for government assistance. People don't be ignorant. Drivers, illegal or not, need to to have insurance because I don't want to get hit by one then its my loss. Also, if this government didn't take 8 YEARS to process Supposed paperwork, maybe more would come legally. As a matter of fact, so many people come come here to work and be safe because of all the drug dealers killing over in Mexico, fighting to get their drugs to the DEMAND here in the US. So before you speak, make sure u are informed of how it really is.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why ignorant people say go back to your country when they need to figure out who are the true americans. They always say mexicans this mexicans that. Mexicans aren't the only illegal ones here. You don't here spanish people being terrorist. We come here to work and we pay taxes it gets deducted from our weekly pay check and we don't see a dime from that because illegal people don't QUALIFY for Medicade or food stamps. So NO we DO NOT abuse the system. We work hard. Who do we see out in the streets begging for money is it the illegal people no no no. You guys are haters because you see the majority of illegal people with better things maybe or homes and vehical are paid off and you guys just can't get over that fact

Anonymous said...

if all illegal immigrants were to get up and head back to mexico, i can assure you that texas will not be able to grow and expand like it does... Texas will look and look and look for good hard workers, but they will fail bc the ones with the true hard work ethis r no longer here.. like us (hispanics/mexiacans) or not... texas and majority of the west coast was mexico 1st so with that being say, America will never get rid of us all.