Just before Spring Break, I went to the Secretary of State’s office on North Maple Road to apply for a driver’s permit. I’ve been procrastinating learning to drive for six years, during which time I’ve let three other learning permits expire, so I knew the drill.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I handed an employee my state-issued photo ID, only to have it handed right back to me with a sheet of paper outlining the five separate documents needed to get that little slip of paper that means I can drive as long as there’s someone else in the car.

This can’t be, I told her. I was just here last year, and all I needed was a state ID then. What was this, some kind of GOP crackdown on illegal immigrants?

She looked offended, and I went home to try to find five pieces of original, non-photocopied (per the new requirements) proof that I was a permanent Michigan resident and an American citizen. I later learned that I was wrong to suggest that it was a Republican crackdown on illegal immigrants that led the state to dramatically alter the regulations governing applying for state ID – it was actually a crackdown on every single non-Michigander.

The new rules were implemented in early January, when, in a remarkable show of zeal for national security, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land instituted a new system, based on an opinion issued by Attorney General Mike Cox in December. It required more paperwork from everyone and barred all non-permanent residents, legal or not, from obtaining licenses.

But it seems that they didn’t realize that that meant 400,000 people – including foreign investors, visiting professors and international students – wouldn’t be able to drive unless they had already a license. Eventually, the lunacy of the proposal sunk in, and the legislature relaxed the regulations to include those who are here legally again. But the other cumbersome regulations about identity verification Cox and Land implemented remained in place, leaving a xenophobic aftertaste.

Say a Japanese businessman wanted to come to Michigan. Even though we would technically allow him to get a license here, if he goes to the Secretary of State, he’ll be handed an informational pamphlet on the extensive documentation required. In that pamphlet, which is also available online, it states that he would need proof of “permanent legal presence in the U.S.” to obtain a license. So, while they may have revoked the rule against legal temporary residents obtaining licenses, how long will it be until the paperwork is corrected to reflect the change?

And if he managed to provide the proper documentation, he would still have to take a written driving aptitude test. The problem here is that the questions on the test are so easy that the only skill they could conceivably be measuring is command of the English language. The last time I took the test, the man sitting next to me – a Spanish speaker – was on his third try and seemed close to giving up. Even though I passed, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is a better driver than I am.

Even if our hypothetical businessman managed to overcome all those hurdles, he’d still have to produce at least five original documents proving his legal temporary residency in America. If that were me, I’d take my business to Ohio after all that trouble.

For a state increasingly desperate to attract foreign investment, it’s hard to explain why we’ve become so hostile to foreigners. A driver’s license isn’t just permission to drive in Michigan; it’s also what you use to get cough syrup, board a plane or buy beer. To take one of the eight states that allows anyone to get a license and transform it into one that requires more documentation for a learner’s permit than a passport is crazy.

That is, it’s crazy unless you plan to try to become Michigan’s next governor, as both Cox and Land likely will; then it’s just bad politics. Cracking down on immigrants might win a few votes in the Republican primary, but come the general election, they’d do well to remember that Michigan is a blue state.

Michigan can only hope that its tax cuts on incoming business or the lure of a prestigious – if underfunded – university like this one will be enough incentive for out-of-staters to ignore the snub, brave the red tape and stay here. As for me, after being turned away twice, I finally got the right papers together and got a permit. But if I have to jump through the same hoops when I actually apply for a license, who’s to say even I won’t just take my state-subsidized degree to a different state – maybe even one with mass transit.

Anne VanderMey was the Daily’s fall/winter magazine editor in 2007. She can be reached at vandermy@umich.edu.

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