In Nation of Immigrants, Plan to Deny Driver's Licenses Would be Injustice

March 05, 2002

Since this nation's founding, more than 55 million immigrants from every continent have settled in the United States. In fact, with the exception of American Indians, everyone living in this country is either an immigrant or the descendent of voluntary or involuntary immigrants.

Every wave of immigration has faced fear and hostility, especially during times of economic hardship, political turmoil or war. When the newest group of immigrants arrives seeking shelter on our shores, we often object to their presence -- echoing the same objections that were likely raised when our own ancestors first set foot on these shores.

In Michigan, the Legislature is considering legislation that will continue, or even exacerbate, this pattern of bias toward immigrants. Prohibiting illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses or state ID cards may sound reasonable, but is far easier said than done. The results of House Bill 5497 and Senate Bill 931 will be unfair discrimination against legal immigrants and higher costs for the state. They will do nothing to limit terrorist activity.

An immigrant's status is not as clear as one might imagine. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has rules and regulations that rival or exceed the federal tax code in complexity. Current rules identify more than 40 different types of legal immigrant status, and new visa categories are created frequently. In addition, there are many people whose status is not yet determined or whose legal status has lapsed while waiting for overworked immigration officials to finish processing paperwork or schedule their asylum hearings.

If these bills are enacted, each Secretary of State's Office will have to attempt to train employees about the different types of visas and how to recognize the types of documentation supplied to support those visas. This training, in essence, will require employees to become immigration experts and be both costly and time-consuming.

More important, employees may, when in doubt, make decisions to deny licenses or ID cards based on the person's race, ethnicity or apparent religion. As a result, many legal immigrants and even citizens who look or sound "foreign" will be required to undergo extra scrutiny and suspicion, or even wrongful denials.

In fact, instances of overzealous Secretary of State workers questioning the legitimacy of legal immigrants' and even citizens' documentation have already occurred. Before Sept. 11, legal immigrants of Hispanic descent were required to show proof of legal status -- above and beyond what non-Hispanics were required to offer -- and then were publicly quizzed on their legal status.

The vast majority of immigrants have legally entered our country. About 800,000 people are allowed to settle here each year as permanent residents, including about 480,000 allowed to reunite with their spouses, children, parents and/or siblings. About 55,000 are admitted under a "diversity" lottery that began in 1990 and mainly benefits young European and African immigrants.

These immigrants work and pay taxes every day. Many immigrants have lived in this country for decades, have married U.S. citizens and have raised their U.S.-citizen children. In fact, legal immigrants living in this country are subject to the military draft and serve in our armed forces.

Neither our laws nor the Constitution obligates the United States to grant any immigrants the right to stay. However, once here, all immigrants are entitled to certain protections. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that "the Due Process Clause applies to all persons," not out of sentimentality, but to promote fairness and prevent injustice.

As the children of immigrants, we should oppose legislation that would deny access to driver's licenses or state ID cards for certain classes of immigrants, because such legislation could unjustly and unfairly impact all of us.

By William B. Flory

WILLIAM B. FLORY is assistant director of legislative affairs for the American Civil Liberties of Michigan. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St. Detroit, MI 48226.

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