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.”