Card-Size Identity Crisis in Tennessee

Times Staff Writer

When Jerry Tseng left the Driver License Station recently, he possessed a new, and puzzling, form of identification.

Tennessee’s “certificate for driving,” which identifies its holder as a non-U.S. citizen, resembles a driver’s license in some ways. Printed on it is a picture of Tseng, a Singaporean studying at Vanderbilt University on a student visa.

But the card is more remarkable for a function it does not perform. Below the state flag are the words: “For driving purposes only -- not valid for identification.”


The purple card represents Tennessee’s effort to solve a problem that has troubled many states, including California. Faced with huge numbers of illegal immigrants driving the nation’s highways, legislators have searched for a way to license and insure them -- without granting them state-issued driver’s licenses.

Tennessee’s answer is the certificate for driving, which is being distributed to drivers who are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent legal residents of the United States. Legal immigrants on temporary student and work visas will receive the certificate, as will illegal immigrants.

But nearly a month after Tennessee began distributing the new cards, few are cheering the compromise. Advocates for immigrants complain that the certificates mark their holders as inferior in the eyes of the state. Anti-immigration lawmakers have the opposite complaint -- that the cards give illegal immigrants legitimacy they should not have.

With about 1,200 of the cards issued already, many Tennesseans are confused: Will the card be of use when cashing a check or renting a video or a car? When a police officer pulls a driver over and is shown the driving certificate, can the officer arrest the holder for failing to show proper ID? If the card is not identification, what is it?

“This is a disaster, potentially,” said Tyler Moran, an analyst with the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for the rights of immigrants. “I really think it’s created a bit of a mess.”

For once, Moran is in agreement with state Rep. Donna Rowland, a conservative Republican from Rutherford County. Rowland said she would “absolutely not” advise other states to follow Tennessee’s lead.

“I hope states learn from our mistakes,” she said. “The certificate of driving will become exactly what the driver’s license has become, which is a de facto national ID.”

Tennessee had been issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants for two years when Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen took office. Bredesen concluded that the practice was a threat to homeland security and determined to end it. In today’s America, a driver’s license is “kind of like a passport,” allowing its holder to buy guns, board airplanes and open bank accounts, said Bob Corney, Bredesen’s communications director.

Not wanting to strip licenses from immigrants who currently hold them, the governor approved a second tier of state licensing, creating the certificate. Bredesen, who considers the new law the strictest in the country, knew he risked displeasing many factions in the immigration debate, Corney said.

In a compromise such as this one, he added, “you’ve struck a good balance when no one on either side is completely happy.”

Nashville’s economy has boomed over the last decade, and with new construction came immigrant laborers. In the 1990s, the foreign-born population of Tennessee grew by 169%, giving it the sixth-highest growth rate in the country, according to the Urban Institute.

The availability of driver’s licenses was itself a draw, and 30,000 applicants surged through driver license stations the first two months after the state dropped the requirement of a Social Security number in 2001, said Wanda Adams, assistant director of driver’s license services at the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Now, the department’s clerks must determine whether the applicant is a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident, Adams said. If the answer is no, applicants who pass the driver’s test will only be eligible for a certificate of driving.

Tennessee’s experiment is being scrutinized by numerous states trying to balance road safety against federal immigration policy and homeland security. Chief among them is California. Former Gov. Gray Davis, after rejecting proposals for years, in 2003 signed a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to receive California licenses. It became an issue in the election last year to recall the governor. After Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated Davis, he lobbied the Legislature to repeal the bill.

This year, lawmakers in 25 states considered 49 bills that would loosen or tighten the requirements for driver’s licenses, although nearly all died in committee, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Ten states issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Greg Rodriguez, president of the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said it was too early to know whether the new system would develop into a national model.

The governor deserves credit, he said, for taking on an issue that has paralyzed states like Texas and California for years.

“It’s the sign of someone willing to step up to bat,” Rodriguez said. “If Tennessee is the leader in trying to solve this problem, if [Bredesen] is the only one who has the courage to take it on, then so be it.”

Others soured on the idea early. Two weeks after the new system became law, plaintiff’s attorney Jerry Gonzalez filed a class-action suit against Bredesen, charging that Tennessee is discriminating against legal immigrants on the basis of their immigration status.

Moreover, Gonzalez argues, the new law has forced low-level bureaucrats to enforce federal immigration laws -- something they are not properly trained to do. His complaint details occasions when clerks seized applicants’ passports, giving no receipt and no explanation. A clerk told one of Gonzalez’s clients that Puerto Rico was not part of the United States and seized the client’s Social Security card and birth certificate, claiming that they were fraudulent, the lawsuit says.

“If this statute passes constitutional muster -- if I don’t prevail -- I suspect you are going to have a wildfire from Tennessee going out across the states proposing bifurcated driver’s license systems. I suspect it will catch like the plague,” Gonzalez said.

Beth Denton, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Public Safety, said she could not comment on the allegations because of the pending litigation but that the transition was proceeding smoothly.

“Our primary concern is knowing that a person has passed the rules of the road and we feel comfortable” granting him or her a license, she said.

Tseng, 26, picked up his driver’s certificate the second week of July and found it was accepted as identification at local bars and a car rental agency. But he carries a Singaporean identification card at all times now, just in case. “It is very confusing,” he said.

Mexican immigrants shrugged when asked whether they would seek a driver’s certificate, wondering what use it would be -- aside from marking them as illegal.

“This does no good for anybody but the government,” said Leo Sandoval, 30, whose wife is undocumented and will have to surrender her license when it expires. “They’re putting you aside, as if you don’t exist. You ain’t nobody.”

Ramon Curiel, who was working a cash register at Supermercado La Reyna, said he saw no problem with the old policy of issuing driver’s licenses to residents regardless of their immigration status. Tennesseans, he fears, are rolling up the welcome mat.

“People want Nashville to be one of the big cities of the U.S., that’s the reason they need Latin people,” said Curiel, 49.

At building sites around Nashville, “I see the American people walking with cellphones,” he said. “But the people who poured the foundation, they’re our customers.”

Times researcher Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.