The Minnesota legislature is set to consider a proposal that would decouple immigration status from driver’s license eligibility. This important proposal restores Minnesota law to its pre-2003 state and returns the driver’s license to its original purpose of ensuring that drivers on Minnesota roads have demonstrated that they know how to drive.
The bills, HF 97 (Hamilton) and HF 98 (Clark) in the House and SF 224 (Champion), each would allow Minnesota to accept a valid, unexpired passport and certified birth certificate as an acceptable form of proof of identity. The bills would also repeal the Minnesota rules that require driver’s license applicants to submit proof of current authorized legal presence in the United States.
In 2003 Minnesota amended its regulations to require that applicants for driver’s licenses must present proof of residency and “demonstrate proof of either lawful short-term admission to the United States, permanent United States resident status, indefinite authorized presence status, or United States citizenship.” Minn. Rules. 7410.0410, subpart 1.
The Advocates for Human Rights opposed the 2003 rules change, noting that they were likely to “result in discriminatory and potentially unconstitutional practices, will decrease public safety, and will fail to advance the purpose of the rule.” We cited concerns about the erosion of immigrant community trust in police and decreased willingness to cooperate with police in the investigation of crime. We also noted that the rules may lead to unconstitutional actions, including unconstitutional stops, arrests, and detention incident to traffic stops made solely on the basis of perceived immigration status.
Those concerns were born out in the findings of The Advocates’ 2014 report Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today, where immigrant crime victims reported that fear of deportation stands in the way of calling the police. Advocates reported incidents of law enforcement routinely running license plates of Latino drivers, jailing people for failure to have a driver’s license, and calling federal immigration officials during the course of traffic stops.
In 2003, we also raised the concern that “due to extensive delays in application processing, many immigrants and lawful nonimmigrants will be unable to present documentation of their status” despite being lawfully present.
The Advocates represents asylum seekers – people who have fled their countries out of fear of persecution, torture, and death. Asylum seekers may struggle through years of bureaucratic delays before their applications are approved. They are lawfully present in this country under federal law and international treaty, but the only proof of their authorized stay acceptable under Minnesota Rule 7410.0410 is the work permit issued to asylum seekers in one-year increments. Asylum seekers are issued Minnesota driver’s licenses marked with the words STATUS CHECK and the expiration date of their work permit. Unfortunately, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency which issues employment authorization documents, is plagued by bureaucratic backlogs which often result in delays of weeks or even months in work permit renewals. In these situations, even though the asylum seeker remains lawfully present in the United States, their driver’s license is cancelled and, when the new work permit finally arrives, the asylum seeker must pay a renewal fee for a new license to be issued. They cannot drive while they wait for their immigration paperwork.
Asylum seekers in our community have endured persecution in their home countries and trauma in flight to safety. Minnesota law should ensure that, when they arrive in our state seeking to rebuild their lives in safety, they are met with welcome and given access to the tools they need to move forward. Returning Minnesota’s driver’s license law to its pre-2003 status is the right thing to do.
By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.