Drivers license ‘status check’ gains support despite critics

Elizabeth Dunbar

Yahya Al-Harthi’s Minnesota driver’s license has a date in the corner labeled “status check,” which alerts law enforcement that he is a foreign national with a temporary visa.

The University electrical engineering graduate student from Saudi Arabia obtained his license under emergency rules adopted last July requiring driver’s license applicants to prove their legal U.S. status.

Some state lawmakers are trying to put the emergency rules into permanent law, causing concerns for immigrant advocacy groups.

“The constitutionality of it is a huge problem,” said Chuck Samuelson, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union execution director.

Samuelson said the union – one of the groups that filed a lawsuit against the state concerning the emergency rules – is particularly concerned the bill violates equal protection provisions under the 14th Amendment and also creates confusion about authority given to state law enforcement.

“This effectively federalizes all police in the state,” Samuelson said. “(Immigrants) are not going to want to cooperate with police because they’ll feel that these guys are basically (Immigration and Naturalization Service) agents.”

Kevin Smith, Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokesman, said law enforcement officials would only have authority to report individuals in violation of their status check date to the INS.

“The rules are a way to kind of tighten up the security of these documents so we know who we’re giving them to,” Smith said.

State Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, said printing the new status check date on driver’s licenses issued to those with temporary visas is a matter of common sense.

“A driver’s license is really access to so many other things,” said Fuller, a member of the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee that OK’d the bill Tuesday. It was the final committee to consider the legislation.

“I personally don’t feel it’s too much to ask of those with temporary visas to keep their status current,” he said.

Craig Peterson, assistant director of International Student and Scholars Services, said the new rules unfairly target foreigners.

“Think about the number of times you use your driver’s license,” he said, adding that people besides law enforcement officials look at them.

“It seems to me there are easier ways to accomplish that goal without a signal for the rest of the world as to who’s a citizen and who’s not,” he said.

Al-Harthi still has six years before the status check date on his license expires, but in the meantime he said he is concerned law enforcement agents will treat him differently.

“If a policeman stops you, he will distinguish you from other people,” he said. “I think whenever they know you are not a citizen they are looking for something you’ve done wrong.”

In addition, Al-Harthi said he doesn’t think the rules will help fight terrorism.

“Even if I’m legal status, that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything wrong,” he said, saying that international students are repeatedly faced with additional regulations. “The real problem is you can’t predict what is tomorrow.”

Smith said approximately 4,000 new Minnesota licenses have been issued with the new status check to foreign nationals with temporary visas.

“I think a lot of people now understand what the rationale is for this,” Smith said.

Fuller said members of the Republican caucus plan to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote Thursday.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals will rule on the emergency provisions’ constitutionality by mid-March.

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]