Allowing immigrants in Michigan illegally to get driver’s licenses stirs debate on fake IDs, safety

Tribune Content Agency

LANSING, Mich. — A package of bills pending in the Michigan Legislature would allow people who are in the United States illegally to obtain Michigan driver’s licenses, and would prohibit the Secretary of State’s office from sharing information about those applicants with federal immigration authorities.

The Drive SAFE (Safety, Access, Freedom, and the Economy) bill package, HB 4410-4412 and SB 265-267, was introduced last month in both the state House and Senate. A similar package of bills was initiated in both chambers in 2021, but didn’t move beyond committee hearings.

If the measures pass, Michigan would become the nation’s 20th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow driver’s licenses to all immigrants irrespective of their legal status, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. No hearings have been scheduled for either bill package.

Michigan could become the 20th state to allow driver’s licenses to all immigrants, even those who aren’t in the country legally.

Proponents of the bills say getting more immigrants into the system would lower hit-and-run accidents that are often caused by people who flee because they don’t have driver’s licenses. Critics say the changes would roll back protections against identity theft that were enacted in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, after most of the terrorists were found to have used fake IDs to help carry out the plot.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who sponsored the Senate bills, told The Detroit News in an email: “Ensuring that all of Michigan’s drivers are knowledgeable of traffic laws will decrease accidents, decrease the number of those fleeing from accidents because of lack of license/insurance, and ultimately increase the health and well-being of our state.”

Chang pointed to a 2011 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that found 18.2% of fatalcrashes nationwide from 2007-09 involved a driver who didn’t have a valid license, and that “among fatal-crash involved drivers who were not incapacitated or killed, unlicensed drivers were 9.5 times as likely as validly licensed drivers to have left the scene.”

The House Bills’ sponsor, Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, said in a statement that the legislation “will finally allow all Michiganders to engage in our economy, have access to basic freedoms, and do so with the guarantee of safety. If you live in Michigan and have proven you can be a responsible driver, you should be able to obtain a license, regardless of your immigration status. The safety of our residents should not depend on whether the federal government has figured out our broken immigration system.”

Opponents of the bills said if the bills pass, Michigan could become a magnet for people seeking fake IDs. They said there’s no way for the Secretary of State to verify birth certificates and other documents that allegedly originated from countries that don’t have formal agreements with the United States.

“This is a real concern when you put the lessons we learned from 9/11 into perspective,” said Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Chief Dan Roberts, a former assistant director for the FBI who from 2004-07 served as the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Office.

“As a police chief, I’m concerned that this would make it easy to get fake IDs that would be used in typical identification theft cases, like credit card or mortgage fraud — but from a national security perspective, maybe the more important issue is that fake IDs have clearly been used to fund terrorism,” Roberts said.

The bills aim to amend sections of the Michigan Vehicle Code, including a passage that stipulates, “‘Residence address’ means the place that is the settled home or domicile at which a person legally resides as defined in section 11 of the Michigan election law.” The bills would remove the requirement that a person must “legally” reside in their home to be granted a residence address.

The bills also propose to change the section of the Vehicle Code section that says: “‘Resident’ means every person who resides in a settled or permanent home with the intention of remaining in this state and establishes that he or she is legally present in the United States.” If passed, the legislation would remove the provision that defines Michigan residents as those who have established that they’re “legally present” in the United States.

“This definition applies to the provisions of this act only,” the proposed new Vehicle Code section says. “For purposes of this act, the citizenship or immigration status of an individual must not be considered in determining whether the individual is a resident of this state.”

The bills charge the Secretary of State with verifying documents provided by applicants seeking driver’s licenses, adding: “The secretary of state shall not furnish any list of information … for the purposes of immigration enforcement.”

The bills are the latest effort seeking to change Michigan’s laws governing how immigrants may obtain driver’s licenses. In 1995, former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley ruled that “the Department of State may not refuse a driver’s license to an otherwise qualified person solely because that person is an illegal alien under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.”

Following the Sept. 11 terror attack, the 9/11 Commission in its Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks recommended that states adopt tighter identification requirements, Congress passed the Real ID Act that set a national standard for driver’s licenses and required states to link their record-keeping systems to national databases.

By 2007, Michigan was one of only seven states that still hadn’t complied with the Real License standard and was still granting driver’s licenses to people who were in the country illegally. Under pressure from federal officials, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land tightened driver’s license requirements in 2007, bolstered later by a ruling by former Attorney General Mike Cox that prohibited Michigan from granting driver’s licenses to immigrants who weren’t in the country legally.

But the ruling was so broad that it also denied licenses to legal immigrants, mostly students and workers without green cards. So, in February 2008, the Michigan legislature enacted the current rules, signed into law by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, that allow legal immigrants to get driver’s licenses but not those who are in the country illegally.

The proposed changes are “a step backward,” said Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“The bipartisan 9/11 Commission recommended more stringent qualifications to get driver’s licenses because so many of the 9/11 terrorists had fake ID,” said Stevenson, former Livonia police chief. “If we repeat the mistakes of the past, we’re doomed to failure.”

Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, who co-sponsored the House bills, said the legislation “would let us know who’s who, who’s where and who’s driving.”

Carter, a former Wayne County sheriff’s lieutenant, said he understands some of the misgivings about the bills. “It’s a controversial issue in many corners,” he said. “We’re just trying to look for pathways to make sure we know that anyone who’s driving on Michigan roads at least has passed the driver’s courses, and that we know who they are.

“From a policing and safety issue, we’ve seen how many hit-and-runs there are that are the result of someone not stopping because they didn’t have a driver’s license,” Carter said. “These immigrants are here already and they’re on our roads. Why not get them licensed and into the system?”

Stevenson said the current proposal doesn’t provide enough details of how applicants’ backgrounds would be checked.

“It doesn’t spell out what the vetting process is; only that the Secretary of State would be responsible for vetting people,” he said. “It’s totally unrealistic to think that the Secretary of State can vet these people to determine they are who they say they are, especially if they’re presenting documents from countries that don’t deal with the United States.

“The most basic check we have in law enforcement is a fingerprint check, but there’s not even a requirement (in the proposed legislation) that would have people submit to fingerprinting, so we’d know if they’d had criminal contact in this country,” Stevenson said.

Chang said she worked with the Secretary of State’s Office to develop the legislation, adding: “We feel confident in their team’s ability to enforce this law with the mechanisms they have in place to verify a person is who they say they are and verify they are a Michigan resident.”

Secretary of State spokeswoman Cheri Hardmon said in an email: “The Michigan Department of State stands ready to implement the law in a manner that ensures the safety of all drivers and passengers on our roads. If passed by legislators as drafted, these bills would reinstate many longstanding department policies that were only changed in recent decades.”

Stevenson said he was also concerned that the bill would prohibit the Secretary of State from sharing information with federal immigration authorities.

“That’s a major problem,” he said. “Why would you prohibit the Secretary of State with cooperating with legitimate investigations? I’ve never heard of that.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states whose license laws restrict the sharing of information with immigration investigators include New Jersey, New York and Nevada.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The News in an email that the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Susan Reed, director of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, called the proposed legislation “fantastic in terms of a practical response to the fact that we have so many people who are excluded from getting legal immigrant status.”

Reed, who estimates there are about 100,000 people in Michigan who are in the United States illegally, said allowing them to get driver’s licenses and state identification cards would give them access to “the basics of life.”

“They need to be able to drive, and they need an ID for something as simple as buying cough medicine for their kids,” Reed said. “This would provide a practical solution to getting everyone insured, everyone road-tested and where they can drive safely to provide for their families.”

Stevenson said he thinks the costs of granting driver’s licenses to all immigrants would outweigh the benefits.

“The theory is that undocumented immigrants will suddenly get a license, and they’ll all get insurance and it’ll make our roads safer,” he said. “But even if every one of them did that, what’s the cost? Are we really going to erase all those changes we made after 9/11? Do the people who are pushing this even remember why those changes were put in place?”

The Michigan League for Public Policy, which says it “uses data to educate, advocate and fight for policy solutions that undo historic and systemic racial and economic inequities to lift up Michiganders who have been left out of prosperity,” said the Drive SAFE legislation would be a boon to Michigan’s economy.

The group “estimates that over the course of three years, 55,000 Michiganders would apply for a driver’s license, leading to 20,000 vehicle purchases. Reinstating driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants would boost state revenue by $13.5 million and contribute $12 million in recurring revenue, $9 million of which would be from sales and gas taxes related to vehicle ownership.

“Over the course of 10 years, this policy would generate nearly $100 million for the state of Michigan,” the group claimed. “This revenue would offset Secretary of State costs for staffing, including training and translation services.”

The proposed changes don’t have enough checks and balances, said Holden Triplett, a former FBI agent who headed the agency’s offices in China and Russia and now owns a consulting firm that helps businesses deal with “global threat actors, many with the backing and sophistication of nation-states.”

“I looked at these bills, and it seemed unclear to me what the documentation would entail,” said Triplett, owner of Trenchcoat Advisors in Washington, D.C. “There might be a positive goal to these bills in terms of getting more people into the system, but if that’s their goal, they also need to realize there are people who will try to exploit this — people who might want to do us harm.”