No License for You

February 7, 2008

The battle over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants has ended up complicating life in Michigan for foreign students with visas that give them complete legal rights to be in the United States.

An opinion by Michigan's attorney general prompted the secretary of state to stop issuing new licenses to undocumented and temporary residents. (The latter group includes people in Michigan on student visas.) The decision followed the increased political attention the license issue has received ever since Sen. Hillary Clinton's debate answers last year appeared contradictory on the issue.

In Michigan, meanwhile, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land's interpretation of the opinion prompted an immediate outcry from businesses and universities concerned that the law had snagged a particular target: international students and workers residing on temporary but legal visas.

The result is that thousands of Michigan's students from foreign countries have potentially been left without the right to obtain a license, disproportionately affecting graduate students who live off-campus and rely on cars to travel to and from class. Sensing the need for a quick fix, Land has already pressed for a "package of bills before the legislature," according to a spokeswoman. The bills passed the state Senate on Wednesday and are expected to be taken up in the House of Representatives today.

"[Attorney General Mike Cox's] opinion very clearly stated that we could not issue a Michigan driver’s license to those that were not here permanently and legally," the spokeswoman said. Land's office remains optimistic that the fix will pass both houses, she added: "It’s very clear that we need a change in state law to be able to accommodate these individuals."

In the 2006-07 academic year, 21,143 foreign students were enrolled at colleges in Michigan -- mostly from India and China, followed by Canada, South Korea and Taiwan, according to Institute of International Education statistics. At Western Michigan University, which had 1,391 international students that year, the law has already begun to have an effect. Peter Li, the immigration and policy research officer at the university's Haenicke Institute for Global Education, said one foreign student had recently bought a car but couldn't obtain a license to drive it with. "Life just turned upside down for some of them," Li said.

In most cases, students who live in Michigan on temporary visas can legally drive using licenses from their home countries. But those who don't already have their licenses, or whose foreign licenses have expired, won't under current law be able to obtain a new one from the state. Foreign students who received their licenses before the decision affecting temporary residents, however, can legally keep and renew them.

As soon as the change in enforcement became apparent, business and educational leaders began an intense lobbying effort aimed at a quick fix in the law. Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm endorsed changing the law, noting that almost 400,000 businesspeople, students and their families lived in the state on temporary visas in 2006.

"I feel like some of the impact from the wave of emotion towards illegal immigration is spilling over into legal immigration as well," said Gautham Pandiyan, a graduate student in molecular biology at Duke University and the chair of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students' International Student Concerns Committee. The group is preparing for its annual legislative action day in Washington today, and driver's licenses for foreign citizens will be high on the list of concerns, he said.

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