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Alaska should not make the DMV enforce U.S. immigration laws

Jeff Landfield
OPINION: The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles should not be involved with determining anyone's immigration or citizenship status. But that's what some people apparently would like to see happen.
Alaska DMV photo

Determining an individual’s immigration status is a function of the federal government, not the states. The Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles should not have a role in determining the immigration status of individuals, but that's exactly what some want to see happen.

The Alaska DMV's website is clear about what the division should concern itself with. The division “titles motor vehicles, including trailers and manufactured homes; registers motor vehicles, including trailers, snow vehicles, powered and non-powered boats, and All Terrain Vehicles, and licenses drivers statewide. The Division serves most of the Alaska population over 16 years of age by providing evidence of motor vehicle ownership and by issuing driver licenses to those qualified. The Division is also responsible for the administration of the safety responsibility law, driver improvement point system, and the collection of motor vehicle registration taxes.”

Nowhere does it say anything about determining immigration status, but a bill introduced during the last session would require the DMV to determine the immigration status of people trying to obtain a driver’s license. The DMV already struggles with this. Recently the Anchorage DMV denied an ID card to a teenage U.S. citizen who happened to be born in Canada after a DMV employee said that her proof of U.S. citizenship was not good enough. She could easily sue them, and win, since the DMV has no right to deny a license to a U.S. citizen. A week ago, the Juneau DMV refused to issue a driver’s license to the lawfully present wife of a state employee, claiming that the wife’s DHS-issued work permit was not good enough evidence of her immigration status.

During the last legislative session, Representative Bob Lynn introduced HB1, a bill that would allow the DMV to issue drivers licenses for a duration of less than five years if the person is authorized to stay in the United States for less than 5 years or the period of authorized stay is indefinite. While this sounds simple, it is far from it. There is over 80 different types of nonimmigrant visas and determining the immigration status of an individual can be a challenge to even the most experienced lawyer or bureaucrat. This is because our immigration system is extremely complex and few people truly understand it. Karen Kraushaar from Citizenship and Immigration Services said immigration law is, “a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation, and the lawyers who can figure it out are worth their weight in gold.” To assume employees at the DMV can establish a person’s immigration status is extremely short sighted.

What Representative Lynn and many others in our legislature are trying to do is turn the DMV into a de facto immigration enforcement agency. Ignoring the fact that a driver’s license has nothing to do with a person’s immigration status, this bill did not even come at the request of the DMV. This bill originated from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group known for writing “model” legislation.

Other states have passed similar bills and the results have been predictable. In Colorado, many people, including foreign students and Treaty NAFTA workers, must go to the DMV frequently with a costly immigration attorney to prove they are here legally.

Why is this? Simply because a person can have an expired visa and be in the United States legally.

A visa is often simply a travel document -- so that a person in valid F-1 student status may have an expired visa -- and thus be unable to travel internationally -- but be in the United States legally because he or she is attending school. Similarly, a Canadian with Treaty NAFTA status will not have a visa at all, but merely be admitted at the border in that status, which will be automatically extended when the person files for an extension. The automatic extension provision is found in federal regulations, but local DMV officials are not likely to be aware of this -- and the person will not have a document to prove that the automatic extension applies. Only a sophisticated lawyer can demonstrate that the person is lawfully present.

There are many more examples, but the point is that HB1 would have many unintended consequences and create increased bureaucratic problems -- not only for a lot of people trying to get a driver’s license but also for the DMV.

What is even more peculiar is that this bill has a zero fiscal note attached, meaning it allegedly won’t cost the state any money. If this bill passed, the DMV would need to hire an expensive immigration attorney so it could effectively establish the immigration status of foreigners. The bill would also likely be challenged in the courts and shot down, costing the state a lot of attorneys' fees. Years ago, when New Hampshire passed a similar bill, an Irish nun filed a suit against New Hampshire, and the state of New Hampshire spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees before it backed down and admitted that its law had been poorly drafted.

This bill is not only a bad idea, it is dangerous: People cannot purchase automobile insurance without a driver’s license. I would much prefer to have licensed and insured drivers on the road than unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

The correct method for reviewing how the DMV issues licenses should be to get all the stakeholders (business owners, universities, knowledgeable immigration attorneys) together and determine what changes need to be made. Passing a bill that no one really seems to understand is not the correct approach to this or any other issue.

It should be humorous that so many so-called “fiscal conservative” legislators are so eager to increase bureaucracy and the size of government, and have state agencies enforcing federal laws. Will the DMV soon be enforcing federal hunting and fishing, or clean water laws?

Jeff Landfield has lived in Anchorage since 2004. He spends time advocating for limited government and market based reforms. He is the current president of the Taku/Campbell Community Council.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.