GR Chamber Disputes Drivers License Laws

February 1, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — A recent opinion by the Michigan Attorney General has blocked first-time drivers license applications by foreigners legally studying or working in Michigan.

Legislation has already been introduced in the Michigan House and Senate that would reverse that ban, but the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, with backing from Grand Valley State University and area corporations, is asking Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land to suspend that ban in the meantime.

In a letter to Land last week, signed by Chamber president Jeanne A. Englehart and vice president Jared I. Rodriguez, the Chamber said the decision to change the requirements for a Michigan drivers license, requiring all applicants to be "permanent residents of the United States, will have a devastating impact on our region and member companies' ability to attract and retain a highly trained and skilled work force."

At a press conference at the Chamber last week, Matt McLogan, vice president for university relations at GVSU, added that denying first-time drivers licenses to foreign students and workers here legally "is bad for business and bad for higher education, in particular" because many college students and faculty are recruited from abroad.

Kelly Chesney, a spokesperson for Land, said Land's office has talked briefly to the Grand Rapids Chamber about the new restriction on drivers licenses "and we share many of the same concerns.  … That is why the Secretary is pursuing legislative changes that would allow us to issue a drivers license to those that are here legally but on a temporary status."

 Land had announced on Jan. 21 that as of Jan. 22, "First-time applicants for a Michigan drivers license or identification card must prove that they have established a permanent legal presence in the United States." The announcement stated that, due to a recent opinion issued by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, "Under current law, the state cannot issue a drivers license to anyone who is not in the country legally and permanently."

Cox's opinion was in answer to a state representative who had asked if Michigan law requires the Secretary of State to issue a drivers license to an illegal alien living in Michigan.

In his Opinion No. 7210 issued in late December, Cox wrote that he believes that "the Legislature stated a clear intent that a 'resident' for purposes of the Michigan Vehicle Code must be permanent and not temporary or transient."

Both House Bill 5547 and Senate Bill 962 now in the Legislature would amend the Michigan drivers license law to state that applicants may include "an alien lawfully admitted for permanent or temporary residence in the United States, or who has conditional permanent resident status in the United States."

The Chamber letter to Land stated that it is "important to ensure that persons who are illegally living in the U.S. are not entitled to work, nor should they be allowed to take jobs away from qualified residents. However, the Chamber opposes the Attorney General's opinion, as it is misplaced and actually runs counter to the goals our region and state have set to improve the economic climate."

The letter goes on to state that the West Michigan region is a "destination for life sciences, research, engineers and a growing health care industry," and that "the growth we enjoy is a compliment to being a welcoming community to many foreign nationals, who are lawfully present and legally authorized to stay in the U.S."

Representatives of GVSU, Alticor and Perrigo said at the Chamber news conference that foreign students and workers here legally are at a great disadvantage if they cannot drive a vehicle.

Mark Schaub, director of the GVSU Padnos International Center, said some promising Asian students are "fully funded" to study in the U.S., and when considering where to apply, will consider other states such as Wisconsin or Ohio rather than Michigan if they cannot drive here. Schaub said one of the first things many foreign students do here is “go to 28th Street and buy a car."

Students and workers from some foreign countries are legally allowed to drive in the U.S. using their license issued by their country.  Susan S. Im, an attorney with Ryan Im Knecht PLC in Grand Rapids and an expert on immigration law, said those situations are covered by reciprocity agreements, but, she added, "There are myriad problems with this."

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