ACLU Challenges State's New Policy Denying Residents Licenses

February 13, 2008

LANSING –The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit today in Ingham County Circuit Court challenging the Secretary of State’s unlawful denial of driver’s licenses to thousands of Michigan residents. The Secretary of State, relying on what she calls a flawed Attorney General opinion, has refused to issue a driver’s license to countless immigrants working and living in Michigan legally.

“State law requires that all Michigan residents be eligible for a driver’s license,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director.  “By wrongfully denying licenses to individuals working and living in our state legally, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General are wreaking havoc on the Michigan economy and hundreds of thousands hard-working, tax-paying Michigan residents.”The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Michigan residents who have permission from the federal government to live and work in the U.S., including: a Canadian nurse who resides in Muskegon; an Indian doctor who treats an underserved population in Flint; a University of Michigan language assessment specialist from Singapore, and a political refugee in Detroit who was granted asylum after being tortured for his political activity in Africa.  The ACLU also represents Freedom House, a Detroit organization that aids survivors of persecution from around the world who have been granted asylum in this country. 


“With this policy, the state is sending mixed messages to me and other registered nurses who are moving here from other countries to fill a nursing shortage plaguing Michigan,” said Catherine Gates, the lead plaintiff and Canadian citizen living in Muskegon. ”Public health nursing frequently requires traveling within a community, however, I am concerned that I will not be able to find a job since this line of work requires a valid Michigan driver’s license.”

On Dec. 27, Attorney General Mike Cox issued a formal opinion suggesting that only U.S. citizens and individuals with “green cards” are eligible for a driver’s license and not other individuals who live and work in Michigan legally. The opinion contradicts former Attorney General Frank Kelley’s formal opinion, which stated that the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code clearly allows all residents to apply for licenses whether they are citizens or not.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, while stating that she believes that the Cox opinion is wrong, contends that she is bound by the opinion.  Even though Cox now states that Land has misinterpreted his opinion and that, in fact, all immigrants in this country legally can apply for a license, Land has refused to issue licenses to anyone but U.S. citizens and green card holders. 

“It is important that the Attorney General and Secretary of State realize there are real people at the center of this political showdown,” said Pegg Roberts, Freedom House Executive Director. “If the asylum seekers that we represent are to have any hopes of making a new life in our state, they need to be able to travel from place to place just like everyone else.” 

The ACLU lawsuit asks the court to order the Secretary of State to resume issuing driver’s licenses to all residents, including immigrants who live and work in the state who intend to remain.

“The Secretary of State and Attorney General’s unprecedented interpretation of the Michigan Vehicle Code is erroneous, arbitrary, and without any basis in law,” said Andrew Nickelhoff, the ACLU Lead Cooperating Attorney.  “Our residents are safer and our law enforcement is more effective when, regardless of status, all drivers have had their vision tested, know the rules of the road and obtain car insurance.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Steinberg; Nickelhoff; ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary L. Moss and ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Bryan Waldman and Jocelyn Benson.