License Snafu Lacks Common Sense

February 18, 2008
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An interpretation of law that was issued by a Democratic attorney general 13 years ago apparently did not find favor recently with the Republican currently sitting in the same position. When the new edict was hastily interpreted by a Republican Secretary of State, it created ridiculous and unnecessary havoc with a basic tenant of social and economic fairness.

State lawmakers were being lobbied heavily in a bipartisan effort last week to begin fixing what some consider unintended consequences of Michigan's reinterpreted drivers license laws (see story page 8).

Republican Attorney General Mike Cox was asked to rule on whether illegal immigrants should be able to get drivers licenses. Until a few days ago, Michigan was one of the few states where illegals could legally drive a vehicle.

Cox's opinion ended that practice, saying Michigan law prohibits the Secretary of State from issuing a drivers license to a nonresident. The opinion said the Legislature stated a clear intent that a resident for purposes of Michigan's vehicle code must be permanent and not temporary or transient.

People who are here legally but not permanent residents — including employees from other countries temporarily working for Michigan companies, or visiting students obtaining training and education from local colleges and universities — faced the prospect of not being able to get a state driver's license.

Those denied were sure to be the dozens of legal, temporary foreign researchers at institutions such as the Van Andel Institute, as well as those employees on assignment at area companies. More than 100 are owned and operated by firms based in foreign countries.

Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land’s decision was based on the recent opinion from Cox, which said only permanent Michigan residents are eligible.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. was quick to point out that this issue already is detrimentally impacting Michigan’s ability to attract and retain foreign investment and skilled workers.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, voiced her opposition to the untimely new rules, noting, “There are currently nearly 400,000 foreign businesspeople, students and their families in Michigan on visas, many of them employed in the automotive industry and other important sectors. … While we should prevent persons in our country illegally from obtaining a drivers license, it is important that the law be changed quickly to address this problem," she said.

Land has already forwarded proposed legislation that would allow temporary, legal residents to get licenses as part of her plan to create a new standard drivers license and state ID card.

The Senate Transportation Committee was expected to pass the package last week, sending it to the Senate floor. Senate Democrats urged quick action, calling it an embarrassment that some legal residents can't get a license.

Cox’s decision reversed an earlier opinion by former Democratic Attorney General Frank Kelley made in 1995.

Some business groups and schools rightly maintained the Legislature should quickly change and clarify state law. "Those that are lawfully here … we believe they have become unintended victims of this interpretation," said Jared Rodriguez of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Grand Valley State University wants the law changed because of fears it would hurt its ability to recruit topflight international faculty and students. Companies with international work forces, including Alticor, also are worried about the possible consequences.

This was a misguided ruling that never should have occurred. A reversal of the action requires no further debate.

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