Bill would block Ohio driver’s licenses for immigrants

Legislation would reverse a March decision made by Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles as part of federal policy.

A battle over driver’s licenses for young immigrants has brought a national debate to the Ohio Statehouse.

The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles decided in March, after months of confusion at local offices, to begin issuing temporary driver's licenses to youth accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The DACA program was initiated last year by President Barack Obama to defer deportation or other action against people younger than 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children and raised here.

A bill introduced in the Ohio House this month would reverse that decision and amend state law to list eligibility for licenses, explicitly excluding DACA grantees. The bill would allow citizens of other countries in the U.S. on a travel visa to obtain licenses but not undocumented immigrants.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Matt Lynch of Solon, said Ohio should not have to follow policy set by the federal government that preempts state laws.

“Ohio is a sovereign state — we have the right to determine when and who will get driver’s license in Ohio,” Lynch said Wednesday during a small rally against immigration legislation being considered by Congress. Lynch said his bill will return the law to as it was pre-DACA and “deny illegal immigrants licenses in Ohio and protect Ohio jobs for Ohio citizens.”

But Attorney General Mike DeWine, in a letter to the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, concluded DACA grantees are eligible for licenses under existing Ohio law, rules and regulations.

More than 291,000 undocumented immigrants — including 1,779 in Ohio —have been accepted into the program after meeting several criteria, which include being enrolled in school, working after completing a degree or serving in the military. DACA status allows these individuals to work and attend school in the U.S. and grantees are eligible to receive a Social Security card.

Individuals granted deferred action do not possess legal status, but are considered “lawfully present” by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. State licensing rules require U.S. citizenship or “legal presence” along with documents verifying name and Social Security number.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates between 10,000 to 20,000 individuals in Ohio are eligible for DACA.

“The license is important for them to be able to get to work, to have a little bit more access to the things people in their age group should be doing,” said Nick Torres of DreamActivist Ohio, which advocates for permanent citizenship for youth illegally brought to the U.S. “For those who have gone to high school here, it’s an important rite of passage. It’s a way for them to be able to contribute back to the community.”

Officials in at least 45 states have issued driver’s licenses to DACA grantees. Only Arizona and Nebraska have not issued licenses to DACA grantees.

The BMV issued 716 licenses to DACA grantees since March 29. The licenses look the same as regular licenses, but have the words “NON-RENEWABLE AND NON-TRANSFERABLE” printed below the driver’s signature and have an earlier expiration date.

Groups on both sides of the issue say driver’s licenses are the tip of the iceberg for how states handle changes in federal immigration policy. Torres said the situation shows how changing immigration policy can cause confusion and he hopes the license process will help states better comply with future reforms.

Lynch and supporters of his bill worry the federal government will open the doors to more immigrants, noting the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission approved a resolution urging in-state college tuition for DACA grantees.

“They’re going to continue to expand these benefits to who knows where and we have to show the feds that Ohio is sovereign and we’re in charge,” Lynch said.

Steve Salvi, founder of the Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, said youth brought illegally to the U.S. have benefited from a $100,000 taxpayer-paid K-12 education. Salvi supports deporting those immigrants.

“With a good American education, they can be a great value to Mexico or Colombia or wherever they came from. Let them be successful in their own countries and we’ll be happy to do trade with them,” Salvi said.

Torres said the DACA recipients he knows consider themselves American.

“They’ve grown up here,” Torres said. “They don’t have much identification with the country of their birth. They want to be able to live as normal a life as they can.”