Immigrants in Tennessee Issued Certificates to Drive
nytimes.com-NASHVILLE, May 6 - Behind the counter at the busy Hart Lane driver testing center here, Rosa King looked over the man's fistful of documents, including a Mexican birth certificate and a separate, typewritten English translation. The translation, Ms. King explained in Spanish, was not exact enough. It would have to be redone.When the man returned, he would be eligible for a card bearing his photograph, date of birth, height, eye color and the words "Not Valid for Identification."
Tennessee is one of only two states that issue two different driver's permits: a license, for citizens and permanent residents; and a certificate for driving, primarily for those who cannot prove they are here legally. To satisfy domestic security concerns, the state has tried to forbid the certificate's use as identification. Utah also has a two-tiered system.
With Congress preparing to require states to issue driver's licenses only to citizens and legal residents, other states that want to allow noncitizens to drive may begin looking to Tennessee's system as a model.
What they will find is the uneasy paradox of a legal document for illegal immigrants. Police departments, insurance agents, banks and even beer vendors have been left on their own to decide how to treat the certificates amid the pitched arguments of conservative legislators and advocates for immigrants.
Critics have complained that the federal bill will require driver's license examiners to act as the immigration police. Here, to some degree, they do, ferreting out fraud and navigating the thicket of 994's, H-1B's, H-2A's, green cards and other papers that confer legal status. If the federal law passes, the difference here may be one of precision.
"We are just doing the best we can with the documents," said Lisa Knight, the assistant director for driver's license issuance for the Tennessee Department of Safety. "If this law passes, we're going to have to look at sending all of our employees to classes that teach all the different documents."
Driver's licenses are just one of many issues Tennessee has had to grapple with as its immigrant population swells. From 1990 to 2000, the state's Hispanic population nearly quadrupled to 124,000, according to census records. Since July 1, when the certificate program was instituted, more than 21,000 have been issued.
Gov. Phil Bredesen's office said the certificates made the state's driver's license policy "the toughest in the nation." But in fact, Tennessee is one of only 12 states that do not require proof of legal residence to drive legally, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
The state began allowing people without Social Security numbers to obtain driver's licenses in May 2001. At the time, some cited Tennessee as an example of a state that welcomed immigrants and diversity. Almost immediately efforts to repeal the law began, with lawmakers citing first long lines at driver testing centers and, after Sept. 11, security concerns. Demand for licenses exploded, and state officials say the policy attracted illegal immigrants. Mr. Bredesen said the certificates were a compromise that balanced public safety and domestic security.
"Its purpose is to make sure people understand the law and the rules of the road," said Melissa McDonald, the spokeswoman for the Department of Safety. "You can't buy beer with it. You shouldn't be able to board a plane with it."
Initially the going was rough for officials and for immigrants. Ms. Knight said that 14 employees, including Ms. King, the Hart Lane center's only Spanish speaker, had been trained to detect fake documents and to teach others to do so. But with pressure to keep wait times short, it was hard to excuse employees long enough for training, Ms. Knight said.
David Lubell, the state coordinator of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said his group had helped 15 to 25 immigrants who were wrongfully told they needed to get the certificate instead of regular licenses. And, the certificates have posed problems for their bearers. They are rejected by banks, and Mr. Lubell said there had been reports of insurance agents refusing to honor them or charging high-risk rates. State officials say insurance companies are now honoring the certificates.
At the Hart Lane center, Ana Luisa Mirando said she would no longer be able to visit her nearest relative, a nephew in Virginia. "I traveled with my license, but not with this," she said, examining her new certificate. It was vertical, instead of horizontal like the regular license Ms. Mirando, who is from El Salvador, had until her insurance company notified her that she had failed to pay a ticket. Her license was suspended, and she had come to reinstate it -- only now, because she is not a permanent resident, she would have to carry the certificate.
At the offices of the Woodbine Community Center, Nancy Rojas, 29, came for help gathering the documents required for the certificate. Like many immigrants, Ms. Rojas came without a passport or other photo identification. Tennessee does not accept the "matricula consular" cards from the Mexican Consulate.
A single mother who works as a hotel housekeeper, Ms. Rojas said she needed to drive. "When I went to renew my license, they weren't giving licenses anymore because I'm not from here," said Ms. Rojas, who said her work permit had expired.
Since then, she said, her bank account has been frozen because she cannot provide identification. "I didn't want any problems with the law," she said. "I just wanted ID."
To keep the certificates from branding their bearers as illegal, immigrant groups successfully lobbied for them to be issued to temporary legal residents as well. The certificate must be renewed every year. For temporary residents, it expires at the same time as their visas. Permanent residents may get licenses.
Jerry Gonzalez, a civil rights lawyer in Nashville, said a separate document for illegal immigrants amounted to discrimination on the basis of national origin. "My problem is it treats lawful aliens differently," Mr. Gonzalez said. "They're being punished and treated like second-class citizens, and for what? So illegal aliens wouldn't have a scarlet letter."
There was also debate over whether the police would be able to use the certificates as identification during traffic stops, but now, Ms. McDonald said, state troopers are told to treat them like regular licenses. That angers legislators like State Senator Bill Ketron, Republican of Murfreesboro, who supported the bill because he was told the certificates would not be used as identification.
Some critics of the law, like Mr. Lubell, say domestic security arguments mask anti-immigrant sentiment. "People are just afraid to get it because they're afraid they're going to be mistreated," he said.
But Mr. Ketron makes no bones about his wish for further restrictions on immigrants. He is backing a proposal to administer the test for a driver's license only in English. Non-English speakers would have to get a certificate instead. The Legislature will vote on the proposal next week.
"Basically it was a measure to slow the migration of undocumented or illegal immigrants into our state," Mr. Ketron said, "because of physical cost that is continuing to accrue for those who are not legal citizens."