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New Law Allows Tennessee to Track Immigrants Through Driving Records - 2004-08-19

On July 1, Tennessee became the first state in the country to track some of its immigrants through driving records. Instead of a state-issued driver's license, temporary and undocumented immigrants will receive a driving certificate. State officials say they need to know which immigrants are undocumented or temporary because of the potential homeland security threat. But there's confusion over the role of the new certificate.

It's 10 o'clock in the morning and for the past hour-and-a-half, a steady stream of people has lined up outside the door of the driver's license station in North Nashville. A dark-haired, petite clerk rings small groups of them inside, depending on how many chairs are available. Then she resumes standing behind a counter, under the sign 'Information Booth.'

"You've got to have your birth certificate or US passport. Due to the law change, you have to prove that you have permanent residency in the United States," says the clerk.

Proof is also what immigrants with temporary or undocumented status will have to bring to get one of the new driving certificates. Though the card looks very much like a driver's license, and has the same information, like date of birth, name, and address. Across the top, it reads, "For Driving Purposes Only Not Valid For Identification."

"[Having the certificate means] you have proven you can safely pass the driver's test and you understand the laws of Tennessee as far as driving goes, and the picture on that driving certificate is the picture of the person who passed the test. It doesn't mean we know exactly who you are or that you can use it as an official means of identification in the state of Tennessee," says Tennessee's Homeland Security Director, Major General Jerry Humble.

He explains, from now on, immigrants will also need to carry with them other official forms of identification, such as a passport.

But if the certificate isn't official for identification purposes, it's not clear what it is good for and this is what confuses some immigrants.

Sam Ihmeadan and Muhmaid Alameemi are standing outside the Islamic Center of Nashville after their afternoon prayers. They're both from Kuwait and they'll both have to get driving certificates when their current licenses expire. They say a Tennessee driver's license is an all-access pass into American society.

"The driver's license we had, it was like, major ID. Can't leave home without it, more than American Express."
"They ask for a driver's license when you write a check. You have to give the driver's license."
"It's a major document, they ask for it, anywhere you go."

Both men are concerned they'll now have to carry their passports, which don't fit into a wallet, and they're afraid someone might steal them.

It's also not clear how law enforcement will treat the new certificates when it comes to simple traffic violations. Nashville police say they'll accept the certificates; state highway troopers may not.

Some activists, like David Lubell, director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, fear that immigrant drivers may get arrested simply because they only have the certificate and not a passport or other photo ID when they're stopped by an officer.

"However you're going to accept the certificate, whether or not it's for ID or other things, that's a totally separate issue. But for driving, you better accept it, otherwise it's not going to accomplish its purpose," he says.

Mr. Lubell's organization has set up a toll-free number to take complaints from immigrants who were denied a driver's license or driving certificate, or who feel that their civil rights were violated as a result of driving with a certificate.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Homeland security director Jerry Humble says the state's main concern goes beyond driving safety.

"You know, issuing a minor traffic violation by a state trooper for littering or a broken taillight is a long way from official identification that allows a terrorist to board an airplane, or buy a gun or one of those situations," says Mr. Humble.

Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators says that until the federal government deals with the issue, states will continue to be the frontline of this battle. The report recently issued by the 9/11 Commission also suggested that officials in Washington look at standardizing driver's license requirements across the country.

In the meantime, temporary and undocumented immigrants are waiting to see what happens. Will they get arrested at traffic stops? Will they be able to buy cigarettes or beer, rent an apartment or cash a check?

A Nashville attorney has filed a federal lawsuit against the state based on those concerns. He contends that singling out immigrants is discriminatory. Tennessee's Governor dismisses that argument, calling it "a tempest in a teapot." He says that dealing with security threats to the state and the nation is more important.

Other states are watching Tennessee to see if its new law is effective. A judge next month will decide if it even will stay in effect long enough to make a difference.