Latino Group Sues Over Texas Drivers Licensing Rule

January 30, 2009

Latino advocates are suing the Texas Department of Public Safety over new rules affecting which non-U.S. citizens can obtain driver’s licenses and identification cards.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in state district court in Austin. It’s on behalf of three men with permission to work in the country and a Lewisville landscaping business that employs seasonal foreign workers through a federal program.

The men are landscaping workers in North Texas who need to drive as part of their job but could not obtain a Texas driver’s license under the new DPS policies because their visas are valid for only 10 months. DPS rules exclude people from receiving driver’s licenses if they have a visa for less than one year or have less than six months remaining on it, MALDEF said.

Officials also changed the appearance of driver’s licenses for persons with legal permission to be in the U.S. so that they differ from licenses given to citizens and green card holders.

MALDEF contends the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, exceeded its authority and did not have Legislative approval to adopt the rules. The suit also said the new policies prevent thousands of people living legally in Texas from receiving standard licenses.

“We are confident the courts will step in and put an end to these arbitrary rules,” Nina Perales, MALDEF southwest regional counsel, said in a statement.
DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said she could not comment on pending litigation.
The Public Safety Commission asked for the guidelines, saying it was necessary to verify people’s residency in the state, enhance security and deter fraud and misrepresentation, according to documents. The series of changes took effect by Oct. 1.

With the changes, Texas moves closer to complying with the federal REAL ID Act, which requires states to check immigration status and verify the identity of license and identification card applicants.

Gov. Rick Perry has defended the new rules as necessary to ensure public safety and national security.

“DPS has tried to sneak these rules in through the back door and in doing so, has created a litany of problems preventing both citizens and noncitizens with legal permission from receiving licenses,” MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa said in a statement. “This is not only harming persons by denying them licenses but also businesses that need their workers to drive in performing their jobs.”

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, has said the changes are a major policy decision that should not have been initiated as a part of DPS rule-making.

Another group, the Texas Civil Rights Project, also has sued over the policies.

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