Court gives immigrant drivers break
By Peggy Fikac
The San Antonio Express News (TX), April 9, 2009
Austin — A state judge Thursday agreed to put on hold stringent new Texas driver license rules that were touted last year as a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants.
State District Judge Orlinda L. Naranjo made the decision in a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which said the driver license rules prevented thousands of people from getting standard-issue license even though they are legally in the United States.
'This case is not about illegal immigrants obtaining driver licenses, it is about legal residents who have been denied or threatened a denial of a driver license,' Naranjo wrote to lawyers in announcing her decision.
The rules had been criticized by civil rights advocates and some lawmakers.
'The Texas Department of Public Safety in an overreaching action exceeded its authority by systematically denying full licenses to people who reside legally here in the United States,' said MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel Nina Perales. 'We are pleased that the court has concluded that the plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction pending a full trial.'
Before the rules were changed, an unexpired visa was accepted as proof of identify for someone seeking a driver license, Naranjo noted.
The new rules require that an unexpired visa be issued for at least a year and have at least six months left on it when presented to DPS, she said.
The new rules also provide for non-citizens' licenses to differ in appearance from standard licenses and to show when a person's admission period for being in the country expires.
The non-citizens' licenses are canceled within 45 days of the expiration of their legal status date if they don't present documentation showing their status has changed or their admission period has been extended.
Naranjo said DPS acted outside the scope of its statutory authority in making the rules.
'The Court finds that the Legislature did not give DPS the authority to create a new category of ineligible persons to receive a driver license,' Naranjo wrote.
When DPS adopted the policy last year requiring non-citizens to prove they are legally in the country, GOP Gov. Rick Perry applauded the change as strengthening security.
Perry said then, 'Texas is a great place to live and work, and while we welcome legally documented individuals to the Lone Star State, we must ensure that this privilege is not abused by those seeking to enter our country illegally.'
Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Thursday, 'The governor continues to believe that the recent rule changes by DPS are important to ensuring public safety and national security and he is confident the vast majority of Texans feel the same way.'
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said by email, 'We have received the court's letter and are reviewing it with the Attorney General's Office to determine the next step.