Immigrants Challenge Driver's License Rules

An Austin woman and two others claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Travis County that new Department of Public Safety driver’s license requirements for noncitizens discriminate against them, even though they are legally in the United States.

The women, who are represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project are identified in the state District Court lawsuit as Sonia Castillo, a Mexican national who resides in Austin; Jocelyn Alvarez Torres, a Mexican national from Mount Pleasant in East Texas; and “Jane Doe,” a political refugee from Honduras living in Houston.

Castillo and Alvarez Torres are domestic violence victims and have a legal right to be here while their petitions for legal status are pending under the federal Violence Against Women Act, said James Harrington, the project’s director who is representing the plaintiffs.

All three women had driver’s licenses but were denied renewal or likely will be denied because they are not citizens and the DPS does not accept their federal work authorization status, Harrington said.

The rules, which went into effect Oct. 1, are intended to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. At the same time, the DPS created a new kind of license for noncitizens that is valid until a driver’s legal status to be here expires.

The lawsuit seeks to force the DPS to stop enforcing the rules, which Harrington called “an unconscionable burden on immigrant survivors of domestic abuse and discriminatory against the Hispanic community.”

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said the office had no comment on the law suit. “The governor for some time has been in support of those (license rule) changes to ensure public safety and national security and to enhance the integrity of the driver’s licenses,” said the spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger.

The rules require people who are not U.S. Citizens to, prove they are in the country legally before getting an original, renewal or duplicate driver’s license or identification card. Harrington said noncitizens and nonlegal permanent residents — known commonly as green card holders must show official work authorization, called an Employment Authorization Document, for a period that exceeds six months, or else they will not be able to get a license.

In addition; they must renew their licenses every six months, at a cost of $24 each time, Harrington said, adding that temporary workers who are legally in the country have to pay, more than $200 more for licenses than a typical driver who renews a license once every six years.

Harrington explained that because of backlogs, it often takes the federal government months to provide the official work authorization document showing it has extended permission for the immigrant to work here.

Harrington said Jane Doe was denied a license even though she provided a letter from the federal government extending her work status. He said Doe, a single mother, depends on her car to work in minimum-wage jobs and has had a Texas driver’s license and auto insurance for 18 years. She continues to drive, Harrington said.

“What we ought to be doing in reality is facilitating people having driver’s licenses because that means they’ll have insurance, and that protects the public at large,” Harrington said.

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