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Michigan Immigrant Rights Advocates Score a Major Win in the Drivers' License Standoff

A bid by Republican legislators to identify residents' immigration status on state-issued identification would have marked them for discriminatory policing, activists say.
A sample driver's license for limited-term that is currently used by legal immigrants with temporary legal status.

A sample driver's license for limited-term that is currently used by legal immigrants with temporary legal status.

Michigan lawmakers weighed bills this week with provisions that would disclose residents' immigration status on identification cards and driver's licenses. But rights advocates, cooperating with state officials, blocked the provisions, which they say would have flagged some Michiganders for discriminatory policing. The activists' triumph comes amid an ongoing debate over how deeply state and local authorities can wade into matters of immigration, particularly as the Trump administration continues its heightened crackdown on undocumented migrants.

The two bills, sponsored by Republican Michigan State Representatives Pamela Hornberger and Beth Griffin, establish that the state cannot issue a driver's license or ID to a non-citizen for a time duration exceeding their legal stay in the United States. They originally included language requiring state-issued identification to disclose whether the holder is a non-citizen or a recipient of temporary legal status. That language was redacted during the bills' consideration by the Michigan House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Tuesday.

Immigrant rights advocates championed the development as a rare instance of cooperation with Republican authorities at a time of what the advocates call unprecedented anti-immigrant policy by the federal government.

"We were very concerned about [the bills'] effects on non-citizens applying for and renewing driver's licenses and state IDs and expressed our opposition at the time," says Ruby Robinson, supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center advocacy group. "Since then, we engaged in a productive dialogue with the secretary of state's office to improve the language in these bills."

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (R) was not immediately available for comment on her cooperation with MIRC and other Michigan community stakeholders at time of publication. Hornberger and Griffin did not respond to Pacific Standard's questions on the immigration advocates' opposition to their original bills.

The bills' new language also clarifies what constitutes legal residence in the U.S. to avoid discrimination against some classes of non-citizens. "For instance, a person who was granted by an immigration judge withholding of removal because she or he feared persecution in a home country might have [had] difficulty renewing or obtaining a license or ID. Now, that is no longer the case," he explains.

MICR first opposed the bills, but following its reported work with the secretary of state, it remains neutral. Still, the organization continues to support legislation that would grant undocumented Michiganders driver's licenses—legislation long stalled in committee by Republican opponents.

Like MICR, the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union maintained a neutral position in the new, revised legislation and lauded civil society's cooperation with state officials. "We had initial concerns about the vagueness of the bill and concerns that licenses would be marked to indicate that a person was a non-citizen or undocumented," says Kimberly S. Buddin, counsel at ACLU–Michigan. "The secretary of state office and bill sponsors have been very helpful at addressing our concerns and clarifying the intention and purpose of the bill."

The standoff over state-issued identification documents in Michigan marks the latest development in an ongoing national debate over whether states can involve themselves in issues of federal immigration enforcement, particularly as the Trump administration wages an intensified crackdown on undocumented people.

Had the bill remained unchanged, it would have enabled Michigan police to determine Michiganders' immigration status from their state-issued identification at a time when some American police departments are collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigrant rights advocates charge that such cooperations have the effect of eroding police relations with the community; where undocumented and other non-citizen community members may have cooperated with police and reported crimes, ICE-police partnerships discourage undocumented community members from interacting with law enforcement at all, for fear of deportation.

Attempts by state and local officials to collaborate to deport undocumented migrants have failed constitutional tests in the past. For instance, in 2012 Supreme Court case Arizona v. United States, the federal government challenged Arizona's bid to allow police to work together with ICE in matters of immigration enforcement. The justices determined that, by assisting ICE, Arizona authorities was actually interfering in a matter of federal jurisdiction.

At the start of the year, California enacted laws to block state employees from offering support to federal immigration agents. Some analysts warned that where Arizona v. United States ruled against states collaborating with ICE, it might also block California's attempts to actively withhold information from ICE. Advocates for California's sanctuary laws argue that, although the state's protections for its undocumented residents address immigration and that is a matter of federal jurisdiction, it is within the state's jurisdiction to legislate on the use of state data and resources.

The Trump administration has sued California over its so-called sanctuary state provisions. The outcome of that legal challenge remains to be seen.

In the meantime, at the grassroots level, immigrant rights advocates like those in Michigan have been working to block bids to have police identify undocumented community members, potentially for deportation. For instance, in California's San Gabriel City, a municipality with a high rate of undocumented residents and other new immigrants, local community groups successfully pressured the city council to oppose cooperations between local police and ICE. Last week, many of the same activists successfully lobbied the San Gabriel City Council to adopt a resolution barring any similar cooperations.

In Michigan's case, it appears that the advocates were able to work together with those in the halls of power and on the other side of the political spectrum to avoid marking some community members for discriminatory policing—literally, on their state IDs.