Groups sue state over driver’s license rules for immigrants

by Joe Mahon

A coalition of advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the state last week, hoping to overturn new driver’s license restrictions for immigrants.

The new rules, which took effect July 8, create stricter identification and proof of residency requirements to obtain a driver’s license and will require a “status check” note on the face of licenses for immigrants whose visas are set to expire.

Critics say this makes police into de facto Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and criminalizes immigrants. Critics also believe the rules are unconstitutional because the state Legislature did not approve them.

“This is a fundamental change in the usage of a driver’s license that affects everybody, and a judge can’t do it. The Legislature has to do it, and that’s why we’re suing,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. MCLU filed the suit along with the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, Jewish Community Action, the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and several individuals.

“These rules are unconstitutional and were imposed unconstitutionally,” Samuelson said.

The Public Safety Commission submitted the package to the Legislature last winter. The House approved the rules, but the Senate never voted on them, said Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver.

So Weaver claimed emergency authority and took the issue to the courts. After one judge rejected the rules, Weaver appealed to administrative law Judge Kenneth Nikolai, who approved the current package.

“(The drivers license) is Minnesota’s most important identification document,” said Weaver. “I’d like to pretend that Minnesotans are immune from terrorism, but we can’t forget that Zacarias Moussaoui was living in Eagan a year ago.”

Weaver said because the INS is understaffed, other law enforcement agencies need to cooperate to fight terrorism. “I hope it does lead to more apprehensions of people that are here illegally,” he said.

Critics, however, say the restrictions violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause by singling out immigrants for different treatment.

“These rules put in place won’t catch determined terrorists,” said Omar Jamal of the Somali Justice Advocacy center. “Immigrants are not terrorists.”

Weaver said the rules will not affect 90 percent of the state’s immigrants, including most Somalis and Hmong who are here permanently.

Other controversial proposed measures, such as linking license expiration to visa expiration and denying licenses to persons whose visas expire in less than 60 days, were not included in the current rules package.

The new rules will apply for two years. They are subject to repeal by the Legislature.

“We did it by the book and there will be a public hearing if they want to change it,” Weaver said.