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Will Evans | The Nation

Will Evans

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Will Evans

Will Evans is an associate reporter with the Center for Investigative
Reporting.

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News and Features

Osmín, a Cuban trucker, is living in Florida legally--but that
didn't matter to the department of motor vehicles. When he was stopped
on May 2 by a policeman who wanted to see the permit for a job he was
working on, as well as his license, he handed over all the necessary
papers. Although they were in order, he was sent to the driver's-license
office because the document granting his temporary stay will expire
later this month. When dutifully checking in at the DMV the next day, he
explained that his application for permanent residency is pending,
allowing him legal stay until it is resolved. But the clerk, guided by
the governor's new antiterror restrictions, didn't understand the
intricacies of his immigration status. He confiscated Osmín's
license--good until 2007--and sent him home, unable to drive and unable
to work. "I feel very bad," said Osmín (who didn't want to have
his last name used out of fear it might harm his residency application)
the following workday, stuck inside. "I have to pay my bills, I've lost
a complete day of work and I don't know when I'll get my license back."

Spurred on by post-September 11 fears, more than a dozen states, from
Colorado to Delaware, have passed or are considering restrictions on
issuing driver's licenses to noncitizens. Some, like Georgia, Minnesota
and New York, may tie license expiration dates to the expiration of
immigration papers, as Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky do now.
Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles now sends
records of all its transactions to the FBI every night. A Michigan bill
would authorize DMV staff to contact federal authorities if there is
"reasonable cause" to believe an applicant is an illegal alien. Even
legal refugees from Bosnia or El Salvador can get tripped up in the new
red tape. "If you make it difficult for people to get a driver's
license, you're going to get a lot more people driving without a
license, and we might have more uninsured drivers on the road," says Ben
Johnson, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers
Association. "Getting tough on driver's-license law isn't going to make
the country any safer."

Declaring his state's enlistment in a "war against illegal immigration,"
South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon introduced legislation to
have local cops enforce federal immigration laws. Florida is working
with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on a groundbreaking plan
to deputize police officers as INS agents. "This gives police another
legal hook to justify their profiling and will prevent illegal
immigrants from reporting crimes against them," says Dan Kesselbrenner,
director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers
Guild.

Heightening surveillance of foreign students, bills pending in
California, Minnesota and Georgia, and a new Virginia law, would require
colleges to report noncitizens to the INS if they repeatedly miss class
or withdraw. An Oklahoma measure would prevent noncitizens from
enrolling in flight school. "While everybody's in the patriotic mood,
people's tolerance level is a little bit lower," says Lena Lee, a
research assistant for South Carolina's House of Representatives,
describing a bill to restrict university enrollment of students who come
from a "state sponsor of international terrorism" as determined by the
US Secretary of State. "The rush is on to get the legislation out.
People are kind of blindly doing it--with good intent."

Oklahoma's Joint Homeland Security Task Force even brought up blocking
foreign students from certain courses. Representative Bill Paulk, a task
force member, said legislators are particularly worried about nuclear
design and computer classes. "Obviously," he said, "there are some
courses you would not want foreigners to take."