Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No driving license for Immigrants who reside legally in the U.S.

This is a very timely post, considering the success the (anti-immigrant) tea party candidates have had in the U.S. elections yesterday. I believe there will be more laws written that target immigrants. Unfortunately, the media has blurred the line between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants. Many politicians have capitalized on the anti-immigrant sentiment by frightening people with immigrant horror stories. Recently Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, stated that “immigrants are beheading Americans in Arizona”.

Arizona’s SB1070 makes it a crime for any non-U.S. citizen not to carry “papers” to prove they are in the U.S. legally. How do you know by looking at someone whether or not they should be carrying papers? Are they tourists from another country? Are they U.S. citizens with “brown skin?” Are they “legal” immigrants who decided to go for a neighbourhood walk with the children, a swim at the local pool, or gardening in their front yard? No matter, if you are a non U.S. citizen and you leave your front door, you must “carry papers” or risk jail time.

In the U.S. the local police force and the driving licence bureau have been empowered to determine one’s immigration status.

The problem is, U.S. immigration law is complicated, and there are many types of documentation to prove one is in the country legally. There are Green Cards (like Permanent Resident Cards), H1B work visas, student visas, just to give a small example. The police and local authorities are not qualified to determine and apply immigration law. This often leads to mistakes. Add to this the confusion of the terms "legal" and "illegal" immigrant. They even sound the same. People who are in a country unlawfully are not immigrants.

Several years ago I attempted to renew my Florida driving licence. I had lived in Florida and had a Florida driving licence for many years and was due to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in a few days. Because of the fear in the US of "illegal immigrants" driving, the rules for all non-US citizens renewing or obtaining driving licences had changed. I had to bring proof that I was in the U.S. legally. I brought my Green Card (which is like a Permanent Resident card) to the licence bureau.

The clerk took my driving licence and Green card and then told me that I was not eligible for a Florida Driving Licence because she didn’t know what the document was (Green Card) that I handed her. She was uncertain whether or not I was in the U.S. legally. I asked for a supervisor, who told me that, as a non-U.S. citizen, I was not eligible for a driving licence in the United States. I should return to my home country and get an international driving licence. As I was not a resident of Ontario, I was not eligible for an Ontario issued international driving licence and was fearful I would be left without any type of driving licence. I asked for my unexpired Florida licence back (it had 30 days left) and the clerk cut it up with scissors and said that non-citizens are not allowed to have unexpired licences back.

My car was parked outside, and I was left with no way of driving home, or getting my children from school. I had no alternative but to leave my car and walk home! I pleaded with the supervisor for help, and she said she would send my info to Homeland Security for a decision, and gave me a letter stating I could drive for 30 days. The letter stated that this was not to be used for identification purposes. I drove home and called the Sheriff’s department to see if this “letter” was valid and was told I would be arrested for driving without a licence. The only type of driving licence acceptable to them was the one with a photo id. Since I was still a legal immigrant for a few more days being arrested for driving without a licence would make me subject to deportation. This is another example of the criminalization of immigrants, both legal and illegal. I had no option but to take the chance, since I needed to collect my young children from school.

When I arrived at school the lady at the front desk refused to allow me inside the school because I did not have my driver licence on me (she knew me, but those are the rules). She would not take my Canadian passport or Green Card as photo id. I had to stand outside the chain linked fence and watch my children while American mothers were able to walk up to and greet their children from school.

During this 30 day period I needed to talk to someone at my bank regarding my bank account, but was told that since I did not have a valid driver licence or state issued photo id, no one would help me. They ignored my Canadian passport and Green card as sufficient photo id.

I had become a non-person.

30 days of this farce were almost up, and still no driver licence. I contacted the Governor of Florida, and someone in the driver licence bureau called me back and said that I had shown proper identification and should have received my renewed driver licence over the counter the day I went in, and they would expedite a licence to me.

I collected my new licence, and the clerk told me it was an “immigrant” driver licence. I told her I was naturalized, and she said that I would have to apply for a driver licence again, and pay an additional $50.00 just to remove “immigrant” from my licence. They still would have to prove my papers with Homeland Security. This was the last straw! I was not going to go through all that again and pay $50.00 for the privilege.

The new governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has promised to bring an even harsher version of SB1070 to Florida. What happens to an immigrant who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, who no longer has a green card, but possesses an "immigrant" driver licence? The law states that if the person is an immigrant, and has no proof of lawful presence in the U.S., they must immediately be sent to jail. A U.S. passport must suffice, but are there now two tiers of U.S. citizen? Native-born U.S. citizens don’t need passports, but naturalized U.S. citizens need to carry a U.S. passport everywhere they go?

I'm obviously not welcome in the United States.

Yesterday I obtained an Ontario Driving License. My American citizen husband is now an immigrant in Canada. He was treated courteously, and able to get the exact same driving license that I received.

I handed in my “immigrant” Florida Driver licence in to the Ontario Driving License office who will return it to Florida for cancellation.

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