Many Democrats are crowing that the 82nd Legislature will go down as one in which, despite the "emergency" push for sanctuary cities legislation, nothing emerged from the Capitol that waill substantially alter the way immigration laws are enforced. Yet Republicans did manage to eke out one small victory during the special session, successfully attaching language to Senate Bill 1, the must-pass fiscal matters bill, that would require people applying for driver's licenses or other state-issued identification cards to prove they're in the country legally.
Such a policy, as opposed to a law on the books, had been in effect since 2008, when the Texas Department of Public Safety began requiring applicants for driver’s licenses and ID cards to produce government-issued documents that affirmed their legal status. Before 2008, according to DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange, such proof was not required to obtain a license or ID.
Immigrants' rights groups were irate over the policy change, which they alleged could have the effect of denying legal residents access to those forms of ID, with DPS clerks acting as de facto immigration agents. In 2009, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued DPS, arguing that the agency overstepped its authority by implementing the policy even though the Legislature rejected similar legislation in the 2007 session.
Last month, however, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, took matters into his own hands. Pitts cribbed language requiring applicants for driver's licenses and ID cards to prove their legal residency from Senate Bill 9, an omnibus homeland security bill filed by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and added it as an amendment to SB 1. The amendment also allows the DPS to determine expiration dates for those IDs based on when an immigration document was issued. For a non-citizen or non-permanent legal resident, DPS can issue a document that “expires on the earlier of a date specified by DPS or the expiration date of the applicant's authorized stay in the United States.” If the immigration document does not have an expiration date, DPS can issue an ID or license that expires every year.
During the just-concluded regular and special sessions, Williams argued that Texas was only one of three states that didn’t have a policy regarding legal status for ID applicants and said one was necessary to ensure that foreign criminals were not receiving IDs. He noted that, as part of an appropriation of $64 million over the next biennium for temporary visitors stations, DPS staff will be trained to identify and approve the dozens of immigration documents currently used to apply for driver's licenses and IDs.
People attempting to renew their exisiting licenses or IDs but don't have immediate access to passports or birth certificates could also be impacted by the new law, Mange said. The Pitts amendment requires that they provide DPS with proof of residency or citizenship as well. Mange said the agency "may have" something in its files indicating that an applicant has previously produced such proof, but if it was before 2008, she said, "you may want to bring something just in case."
Mange said that Texans should receive a notice from DPS when it's time to renew that will inform them whether they're eligible to renew online, which can only happen if they didn't renew online the previous time. "We require everyone to come in once every 12 years so we can see your smiling face," she said.
The Legislature’s actions could signal an end to the 2009 court case. Still, MALDEF attorney Luis Figueroa questions the timing of the Pitts amenemnt, which coincides with the passage of a new Voter ID law requiring citizens to show a valid state-issued ID before casting a ballot. Democrats and advocacy groups, including MALDEF, rallied against the Voter ID measure during the session, claiming it would decrease turnout at a time when Texas already ranks near the bottom of all states in ballot-box participation. During the Voter ID debate, Democrats charged the law would make it difficult, in particular, for senior citizens who haven't had a picture ID in years to vote.
“If [voters] are trying at the last minute to get a driver’s license and trying to get the documents they need and they are rejected, it’s going to make the process slower,” Figueroa said.
Aides to both Pitts and state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who worked with the Senate to attach the amendment to SB 1, said they were unaware of those concerns. They noted a majority of Senate Democrats voted for SB 9 during the regular session, when it contained the driver's license/ID provision.
But Geren expressed some displeasure this week that the driver’s license language made it on to the fiscal matters bill while “sanctuary cities” language — which would prohibit local entities from adopting policies that prevent the enforcement of state and federal immigration laws — did not. Failure to pass a sanctuary cities bill, which Gov. Rick Perry declared an emergency item during the regular session and added to the special-session call, resulted a round of finger-pointing by the House and Senate. The House, which approved a bill in the regular session, blamed the Senate for not following suit. The Senate, which passed a bill in the special session, blamed the House for failing even to move it out of committee in the special. Perry then blamed state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock who chaired the SB 1 conference committee, for refusing to add sanctuary cities to the committee's report.
“They were several interviews [in which] some of the senators said that SB9 did not belong in SB1,” an animated Geren said. “Well, they sure as hell wanted this part of SB9 in SB1.”