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Monday, June 28, 2004

Immigrant driving certificates to launch this week - Monday, 06/28/04

Immigrant driving certificates to launch this week - Monday, 06/28/04
By ANITA WADHWANI
Staff Writer

The state's driving document for immigrants debuts this week, amid unresolved questions about what it will mean for law enforcement and disagreement among the new policy's backers.

This week, the Department of Safety and a state immigrant organization will begin separate public education campaigns about the new driving certificate, a first-of-its-kind wallet-sized card issued to drivers who can't prove they are living in the United States legally and those who are here temporarily.

Meanwhile, government officials continue to haggle over disagreements on whether the card — marked ''not valid for ID'' — can be used as identification in any circumstances; more than 90 police departments across the state will decide separately how they'll treat the certificates.

Critics say the confusion stems from a poorly thought-out law, while administration officials say the certificates haven't even been issued yet and any kinks will be ironed out soon.

''We're doing a lot of things to prepare,'' said Beth Denton, spokeswoman for the safety department.

Today, staff at the Department of Safety will send out dozens of letters to other states, law enforcement, federal agencies and private groups like the Tennessee Retailers Association, explaining Tennessee's new law.

Tomorrow, the agency plans to unveil the final prototype of the card at a news conference. It also will announce an 800 number and e-mail address to respond to questions. The agency hopes to hire bilingual staff to answer them, Denton said. The department has posted Spanish translations explaining the law on its Web site.

Thursday, driving certificates will be available for the first time at all full-service testing stations in the state.

Meanwhile, the law's backers aren't in agreement on whether the certificate of driving can be recognized as ID by state troopers issuing misdemeanor citations for such things as speeding, minor theft or drug possession crimes.

Disagreements persist

The governor's homeland security chief, Maj. Gen. Jerry Humble, said the certificate was not valid Tennessee identification, but state troopers have the discretion to accept it as proof that the person they are ticketing is who they say they are. Certainly, Humble said, it wouldn't work for state troopers to arrest anyone they pull over for producing a certificate and no other ID for simple misdemeanor offenses.

''We can't overfill our already overcrowded jails,'' he said.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro and a major backer of the law, said that's exactly what troopers should do. That's what he says he and other legislators were told all along, and that's why the vast majority voted in favor of the law. Immigrants should carry other ID, such as a passport, he said. Ketron asked Humble to instruct Department of Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips to ''send a communication to all THP officers across the state that they would not accept driving certificates as form of ID. He (Humble) said they were all on board with it and have been since the beginning.''

However, Humble said that working officers have always had the authority to verify someone's identity using whatever documents they had at hand, including a library card. The certificate would be no different.

''It doesn't mean it's ID,'' he said. ''We've got to be practical about this. There's a whole lot of difference between issuing a ticket for littering (to someone producing the certificate) and a terrorist being able to board an airplane with one.''

The controversy has become one key point of debate over the certificates. Those on both sides of the issue say it's partly a technicality, because officers have latitude in asking for ID. It's also partly a concern for immigrants' rights, because officers also have the authority to arrest someone for not having proper ID. More importantly, police say they need to be sure who they are issuing a citation to, in case the person never shows up for court or pays a fine.

Beyond the practical consequences, the dispute also centers on the symbolism: The state issuing the certificates is telling everyone but their own troopers to disregard them as valid ID, said attorney Jerry Gonzalez, who heads the local chapter of the Hispanic advocacy organization League of United Latin American Citizens.

''It illustrates the ridiculousness of this statute,'' he said.

Humble said the whole clash was based on a misunderstanding that the certificates would affect the way officers issued citations. They won't, he said.

Immigrants uneasy

Meanwhile, social workers such as Terry Horgan say unease persists among immigrants. Rumors and questions are swirling about whether the driver's licenses they have are still valid, whether they'll qualify for a certificate, whether immigration officials will lurk at driver's testing stations and whether police will take away their valid licenses, said Horgan and other advocates.

''There's a lot of urban mythology,'' said Horgan, whose clients at the Woodbine Community Organization are mainly Hispanic immigrants.

Nashville police will not confiscate driver's licenses, spokesman Don Aaron said. There are also no known plans to station immigration officers at testing stations, U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs spokesman Temple Black said.

The Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition will set up its own 800 number next week to take complaints from applicants about licenses or certificates. David Lubell said his group has helped three immigrants wrongly denied driver's licenses. The three applicants eventually got their licenses with the assistance of the Safety Department, Lubell said.

Lubell's group also will encourage immigrants to apply for driving certificates, while recommending that they carry extra ID in case they are stopped by police.

''We believe that drivers would be better off driving with a certificate that is proof they're driving legally than with no document at all,'' Lubell said.

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