Immigrant driver license hearing gets canceled at last minute

By: - September 14, 2021 2:46 pm

Rally for undocumented immigrants in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Updated, 4:31 p.m. 9/14/21 with a list of groups that planned to testify

Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) asked to nix a long-awaited hearing Tuesday on legislation expanding access to driver licenses and state IDs for a wide range of Michiganders, including both documented and undocumented immigrants. 

The Michigan House Rules and Competitiveness Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.), was slated to hold the hearing on House Bills 4835 and 4836 at noon and was canceled just hours before. The two bills make up the Drive SAFE legislation, which stands for safety, access, freedom and the economy.

“Several members reached out to the speaker with concerns, so he asked Rep. Lilly not to hold the hearing,” Wentworth spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro wrote in an email. 

State House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) | Ken Coleman photo

D’Assandro wrote “members raised issues with both the policy and the need to focus on finalizing the budget this week.” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer must sign the remainder of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 state budget by Sept. 30 in order to avoid a partial government shutdown. She signed the School Aid budget in July.

D’Assandro did not respond to whether the hearing will be rescheduled. Lilly did not respond to a request for comment.

The bills’ sponsors, Reps. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) and Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), said they are hopeful the package will still move forward due to its expected positive economic impact on Michigan, support from a coalition that includes law enforcement and business groups, and the fact that 16 other states, including states led by Republican legislatures, have passed similar legislation.

“We’re still hopeful,” Kuppa said Tuesday of the legislation moving forward. “The fact we got as far as a potential hearing … is very promising.”

“It’s a disappointment [at] the moment,” Kuppa added.

The legislation would allow individuals who can prove residency in Michigan but are unable to produce records verifying citizenship to access drivers’ licenses and state identification cards. The nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) noted in a press release that the “bills would impact a wide variety of residents, such as the elderly who may have lost records through their lives, individuals on visas, undocumented people and their families, and the children of U.S. service members who are born on foreign bases.”

In interviews with the Advance, Kuppa and Hood emphasized they have been working with their Republican colleagues on the package. Hood said that in response to other lawmakers’ concerns, the bills specify that any licenses or identification cards issued under the new legislation would clearly state that they cannot be used for federal purposes or voting.

“Both Rep. Kuppa and I are very grateful to Rep. Lilly for his vision and engagement on this issue,” Hood said. 

The Democrats say the legislation would boost the economy by making it easier for migrant farm workers to work in Michigan’s agricultural industry, allow immigrants legally in the country but ensnared in the lengthy immigration process to receive identification, and impact everyone from students hoping to attend college to individuals who currently can’t make trips to the grocery store or the doctor because they’re unable to access licenses

Advocates from across the state, many of them members of the Drive Michigan Forward coalition that has advocated for the legislation, had gathered in Lansing in support of the bills on Tuesday. In lieu of testifying at the hearing, Drive Michigan Forward members broadcast their planned testimony on Facebook.

A long list of supporters were expected to testify in favor of the legislation on Tuesday, either in person or through writing, including the MLPP, GOP former state Rep. Dave Pagel; the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit led by police officers and other law enforcement officials; the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan; the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center; the ACLU of Michigan; and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, among others.

Among those who would be impacted by the legislation include documented immigrants, “such as those on H1B, H4 or L1 visas,” Kuppa said. 

Rep. Padma Kuppa

“Many of them are unable to obtain driver licenses or state identification cards during the immigration process, which can take several years,” Kuppa said in a May press release.

One such individual who Kuppa heard from about challenges surrounding legislation was a community college student who hoped to transfer from a community college to a four-year college but was unable to do so because the college required her to show identification. She had applied for a visa renewal in 2020 and was still waiting for that in 2021, which meant she was unable to attend the college.

“We are really at a point where we cannot move forward without this resource available to workers who are willing to come to Michigan but stop short because of this issue,” Hood said. “These workers are in high demand, and they have choices.”

Hood said she knows of individuals who were expected to “address a last-minute crisis for a farmer who needed laborers to come and help with the harvest” but ended up going to Illinois “because they were afraid to come to Michigan and be targeted while they were driving.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.