LANSING – Legal immigrants temporarily living in Michigan will be able to resume getting driver’s licenses under terms of a bill passed yesterday by the state legislature.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expected to sign the bill, but it’s not yet clear how quickly rules will be written and adopted so the Secretary of State can resume issuing licenses to immigrants who are legally in Michigan but aren’t permanent residents.
Businesses and universities are upset that the policy has denied some of their workers and students driver’s licenses even though they are legally in the state.
About 400,000 foreign businesspeople, students and their families in Michigan are on visas. There are 5,429 international students at the University of Michigan.
One of those students, Hsien-Chang Lin, president of the Taiwanese Student Association, was relieved to hear the news, saying the provision had already affected many students.
“I had heard of many cases in which applications were denied,” he said.
Hsien-Chang said the bill reversal would be essential for the state’s economy, adding that it would make international students more likely choose to stay in Michigan once they graduate.
“International students are eager to see if the state government is friendly or not,” he said.
Rackham student Liang Zhang, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, agrees. He said he’s talked to many students in China since the law was initially changed, and found that many of them were deterred from coming to the University of Michigan as a result.
“The reversal will have a major impact on the whole state of Michigan,” he said. “The Chinese community will be very happy as well.”
The Michigan Catholic Conference called Thursday’s vote the approval of “common sense legislation.” The agency had been concerned about the effects of the policy on foreign-born priests that have come to Michigan and for refugees who have legally entered the U.S.
“We wanted the state of Michigan to be more foreigner friendly,” said Hsien-Chang. “We are legal residents of the United States and we have gone through a lot of processes to stay here.”
Illegal immigrants still would be unable to get licenses under the terms of Michigan’s revamped policy.
Until recently, Michigan had been one of the few states still allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses.
That changed in late January, when Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land changed state policy for first-time applicants in accordance with an opinion interpreting state law from Attorney General Mike Cox, arguing that Michigan should join the rest of the states that didn’t allow illegal immigrants to get licenses.
Land interpreted the same Cox opinion to mean that legal immigrants who weren’t permanent residents shouldn’t be able to get driver’s licenses, either.
Land said she wanted legal immigrants to be able to get licenses but state law would have to be changed to allow it.
Cox and Land, both Republicans, took some heat for the decision to deny licenses. Some Democrats said Land went too far in her interpretation of Cox’s opinion.
Land spokeswoman Kelly Chesney welcomed the Legislature’s action Thursday. Other bills that Land wants, also aimed at helping Michigan comply with the federal Real ID Act, are still moving through the Legislature.
House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat from Redford Township, credited bipartisan cooperation with passing the legislation to fix the immediate issue related to legal immigrants. The bill passed both the Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate by overwhelming margins.
Liang said he was confident the bill would eventually be reversed, but he was surprised that the Jan. 22 bill was so short-lived.
“The Chinese community thought it would take several weeks or even a few months,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to be this soon.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Land this week in an attempt to reverse the policy that denied certain immigrants licenses.
The ACLU said its immediate goal was to restore driving privileges for legal immigrants. But the organization’s position is that driver’s licenses should be available to all residents, including immigrants who live and work in the state and intend to remain. That could
include some immigrants who came to Michigan illegally.
The case is pending in Ingham County Circuit Court.
– Jessica Baer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.