By TIM MARTIN
When Michigan officials recently reinterpreted state law to stop nonresidents from getting driver´s licenses, critics said it had an unintended consequence.
The crackdown — intended to target illegal immigrants — also affected legal immigrants who are not permanent residents, including employees from other countries temporarily working in Michigan.
Businesses and universities have complained, saying Michigan´s reputation is suffering. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Wednesday on behalf of legal immigrants.
State officials say there are nearly 400,000 foreign businesspeople, students and their families in Michigan on visas, and some have already have been turned down in their quest to get licenses, which hurts their ability to find jobs.
"With this policy, the state is sending mixed messages to me and other registered nurses who are moving here from other countries to fill a nursing shortage plaguing Michigan," Catherine Gates, a Canadian citizen living in Muskegon, said in a statement released by the ACLU.
The Legislature has begun passing bills to clarify state law so that legal immigrants can get driver´s licenses, but the House and Senate haven´t yet agreed on final legislation.
Driver´s licenses are among several hot-button issues surrounding the debate over illegal immigration. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer last year proposed allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses, but withdrew the idea under heavy criticism.
The issue has also reached the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama favors giving licenses to illegal immigrants. His opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, once hedged on the idea but now opposes it.
The new policy in Michigan leaves Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Oregon as the only states that do not require drivers to prove legal status to obtain a license.
That number may soon be getting even smaller. The Oregon Legislature on Wednesday passed a bill requiring the state motor vehicles agency to verify whether an applicant for a new or renewed license is a U.S. citizen or in the country legally.
Additionally, the bill requires immigrants to show they have a current visa to get a temporary license. It would be valid only as long as the visa is valid.
Oregon´s bill now goes to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who has said that the state, with its loose identification requirements, had become a magnet for trafficking in fake IDs.
The rule change in Michigan came after state Attorney General Mike Cox decided that granting licenses to illegal immigrants was inconsistent with federal law.
Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land interpreted Cox´s opinion to mean legal immigrants who weren´t permanent residents shouldn´t get licenses, either. She said she supports giving legal immigrants driver´s licenses, but that state law must be changed to do so.
The new policy applies only to first-time applicants and shouldn´t affect immigrants who come back to renew their licenses. Many legal immigrants can continue driving in Michigan under terms of their valid licenses from their home countries.
The ACLU said its immediate goal is restoring driver´s license privileges to legal immigrants. All the plaintiffs in their case are legal immigrants, the ACLU said.
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 illegal immigrants.