shutterstock_209519614Until September 2015, Georgia issued driver’s licenses to foreign nationals residing in the U.S. as long as they were statutorily eligible. Then, due to a “policy change,” the Department of Driver Services (DDS) began demanding that foreign nationals show they had been lawfully admitted to the United States, a requirement not found in the law or regulations. One AILA member, Justin Chaney, decided to fight that battle in a Rockdale County court on behalf of a client.  Mr. Chaney’s challenge to DDS will protect not only his client’s rights under federal law but also the public safety of all Georgians driving on state roads.

The REAL ID Act established minimum evidentiary requirements for the issuance of driver’s licenses by states. In particular the REAL ID Act requires documentation of both identity and lawful status. In this case, Mr. Chaney’s client, Thomas* had a receipt, issued by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for his application for cancellation of removal. He had also applied for and received an employment authorization document (EAD) under the (c)(10) category of the federal regulations as one who had applied for adjustment of status to lawful permanent residence, i.e. the application for cancellation. In initially applying for a driver’s license, and subsequently renewing, Thomas had successfully presented his EAD and cancellation application receipt.

On Thomas’s last attempt to renew his license, DDS accepted his EAD as proof of identity but rejected his USCIS cancellation application receipt, stating “…a receipt that you paid for an application to adjust your status is not sufficient to confirm lawful status.” Further, DDS Counsel stated that an applicant for a license must have been “lawfully admitted” if they have a pending application for adjustment of status, and that the applicant’s visa cannot have expired prior to applying for a license.

Mr. Chaney challenged DDS in a Rockdale County court; the court rejected DDS’s position and concluded that DDS incorrectly added the requirement of “lawfully admitted” to the definition of lawful status. Under the DDS interpretation, the court pointed out, neither an asylum applicant nor a person granted deferred action such as DACA would be eligible for a driver’s license. The court determined this was an incorrect reading of the regulations and imposed an unintended additional requirement for obtaining a driver’s license.

The court fortunately defeated Georgia’s attempt to impose even greater hardship on an already vulnerable population. Taking this to the next level, recently Justin partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center on a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of six immigrants alleging illegal discrimination in the denial of licenses.

Instead of directing resources to limit the opportunity to lawfully drive, Georgia should be encouraging everyone who drives to obtain licenses. Receiving a driver’s license requires learning the rules of the road and obtaining insurance. Isn’t greater safety and responsibility on the roads a good thing?

*Pseudonym used for petitioner’s name

Written by Marshall Cohen, Chair, AILA Georgia-Alabama Chapter